We take the Atlanta smack tour. Roll through the stark, sketchy streets northwest of the Georgia Dome known as the Bluff. N. Frank Daniels directs from the passenger seat. He knows every corner, boarded-up building ("I used to shoot up in that house") and trash-strewn side street of this several-square-block doper's moonscape.
He should. He was once the white kid with dreadlocks who drove in daily from the suburbs to score heroin, shoot heroin, nearly get killed for heroin —- all pursuits central to "Futureproof," his heading-to-hell while coming-of-age debut novel. It's just out from Harper Perennial.
He nods toward a corner store. "You can go up to that window and buy syringes for a dollar," he said. "Pretty much any store around here, you can buy syringes."
Three guys stroll by with a pit bull.
"I was coming down this street when a kid came up to sell me dope. He said, 'Wait here, I'll be right back.' Then a dude comes up and sticks a shotgun in my face. I hit the gas.
"I wasn't even afraid then," Daniels, 34, said. "I just felt like I had nothing to lose. If somebody blew my brains out, I didn't give a [expletive]."
The line between Daniels' life as Generation X roadkill and what he chronicles in "Futureproof" is a slim one. A Pebblebrook High School dropout, he was a full-time junkie into his early 20s.
His book's raw, almost bloglike confessionalism made it an Internet cult discovery before it reached a New York publishing house. Daniels had distributed the novel three years ago through a publish-on-demand Web site. He also put the first 50 pages on his MySpace page and e-mailed copies to online reviewers with a taste for Bukowski and Kerouac (his favorite authors) at sites such as Amazon and Poddymouth.
"Futureproof" has generated buzz as a profanely bleak saga of disaffected, discarded youth. It also is viewed as part of a growing online insurgency trying to tunnel past publishing's traditional gatekeepers.
Jay McInerney, whose novel "Bright Lights, Big City" became a best-selling travelogue through the cocaine-fueled 1980s, has called Daniels "one of the freshest ... voices I've encountered in years." Controversial memoirist James Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces," sent Daniels a brief testimonial —- "Really good [expletive]" —- and later championed "Futureproof" at Harper Perennial, his own publisher.
For Daniels —- trim red hair and beard, tattoos recalling work by his favorite graffiti artists —- the trip from junkie to novelist is one he's still reconciling. "I just have this thing about not having my whole life out there," he said as we drove away from the Bluff. "Yeah, a lot of my life is in there [the book]. But I can deny it. It's a novel. Says it right on the cover."
"There is a certain loneliness that hangs in the air, and we all feel it. We are all at home with it. Behind the facade of people being irresponsible and reprehensible and in all other ways completely morally bankrupt, there is a hopelessness that holds us together. This sadness is a glue ..."
—- from "Futureproof"
He was the kid you see bumming change in Little Five Points, loitering around strip malls, slipping away from high school at midday.
It was when he arrived as a teenager in south Cobb County with his stone-broke parents and three siblings that he fell in with what he calls "those people": stoners and freaks, fallout from broken families who found an anthem in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
"I don't regret that in the slightest," Daniels said of those lost days in Mableton. "I never felt more like I belonged in my life."
His early years were spent in central Pennsylvania. He didn't meet his biological father until years later, and he said his ex-hippie mother left Daniels and his younger brother with their grandparents while she went to college and pursued an entertainment career in New York.
But she soon joined an extremist religious group and whisked them off to Massachusetts, he said. She married another sect member and had two more kids. His stepfather, Daniels said, physically abused him almost from the start.
"The life we ended up leading was a terror," he said.
They moved frequently, sometimes to places without electricity or water. They bought gum with food stamps, then used the change to buy gas and clothes. After spending summer 1988 in a pop-up trailer in a Stone Mountain campground, they rented a place in tony east Cobb. Daniels went to Sprayberry High, where he said 16-year-olds drove new cars while he couldn't afford new jeans.
"I know he felt shame and embarrassment," said younger brother Isaac Arevalo. "He wanted to escape quite early."
The family moved to Mableton, where Daniels started his junior year at Pebblebrook. He fell in with an arty crowd at school, and soon he started drinking and smoking pot at weekend parties and screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the now defunct Hilltop Cinema, where classmate Brannan Newport recalls a scene where "everybody was very accepting."
Now a single mother of two in Acworth, Newport said she recently found a journal she and Daniels shared in high school. Many entries, she said, "are about how angry we were about everything. ... We were a little more dramatic than we should've been, I guess."
Daniels dropped out his last semester —- he'd already moved out of his house —- and the drama really began. He got a telemarketing job, installed floors, and at 19 he started shooting heroin. His life became an endless reel of sex, drugs 'n' grunge.
"I feared for his life," Arevalo said. "I thought any day I would get a call he wasn't here anymore."
Asked whether he had any thoughts at the time about his future, Daniels smiles.
"That's why it's called 'Futureproof.' "
"I walk into the nursery preparing myself for the worst and as I pass all the tiny babies ... I feel the full weight of my life and the choices I've made. ... [M]ost of them, I know, are in this darkened room because this is Atlanta, and it's a hell of a lot easier to get knocked up and stay on drugs than it is to do the right thing. ... I am worse than my parents ever were."
—- from "Futureproof"
Daniels went into rehab at age 22 when his junkie girlfriend had a baby. The state took the boy until Daniels cleaned up. He got custody and moved back to Pennsylvania to be with relatives. Four years later, he headed with his son to Berea College in Kentucky. He was the only single father on campus, said Libby Jones, an English professor there, and "it was clear writing was central to his life. I just didn't know what form it would take."
He married, had a daughter and graduated. He moved to North Carolina for grad school. He attended a writers' conference in New York, where he brought an excerpt of "Futureproof."
"I always wanted to write this book," he said. "The things I had experienced, and my friends experienced, seemed like they needed to be documented."
Encouraged at the conference to finish the book, he did so with the single-minded devotion he once trained on his drug habit. He quit grad school, largely quit working. He finished the book and marketed it online, selling about 1,000 copies. Then, in 2007, Harper Perennial contacted him.
"I had the opportunity to send Frank a MySpace message making an offer for the book," said Michael Signorelli, his editor at Harper Perennial. "I had no other way of knowing how to connect with him."
Daniels calls his publishing experience "the new paradigm," that Facebook and MySpace is where agents will now "go to try to find new writers."
He's already finished a sequel to "Futureproof" and is at work on a memoir. He and his agent are waiting to see how "Futureproof" sells.
In the meantime, though, his wife has left him, he hasn't seen his two kids in months and he's virtually homeless. For a while he lived on the streets in Nashville (where he moved to be near his kids), but since then he has lived with a series of old friends and new online acquaintances.
Yet he's looking ahead, though he knows he'll never completely leave his past behind.
"If I didn't have this book deal, I'm pretty sure I'd be dead. That I'd off myself," he said. "But I'm not in that place now. The book's coming out. This is my opportunity, and I'm not going to let it slip through my fingers. I'm trying to work through this stuff."
MEET THE AUTHOR
N. Frank Daniels reads from "Futureproof." 7 p.m. Tuesday. Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge, 644 N. Highland Ave. N.E., Atlanta. Also live music. Sponsored by A Cappella Books. 404-681-5128; acappellabooks.com
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