In that sense, Nicotine enters a kind of sub-genre of literary memoirs focused around a single practice or obsession, in which the object or activity enables the writer to achieve sharper focus, heightened consciousness, and creative fire. Like Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and Updike’s writing on golf, it illuminates the writerly quest for the elusive state the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named, simply, “flow.” Smoking, Hens seems to believe, transformed him into a writer by expanding his sense of what was real and what was perceivable. It physically and irreparably altered the pathways in his brain. And it punctuated and constructed the order of his professional life. “Even though I’ve not smoked for a long time, I still think and work in a constantly repeated rhythm of about half an hour,” he writes.
But unlike, say, running or golf, or even taking minute doses of LSD to increase focus, smoking is, of course, an extremely toxic habit. While Nicotine is at its most interesting when Hens expounds on his chosen subject as though it’s the magical source of his inspiration, he considers it primarily as a mental act rather than a physical one. The great irony of Nicotine is that Hens no longer smokes. So his meditation on cigarettes and their transcendent power has the feel of an artist chasing something out of reach: half an ode to the pleasures and promise of smoking, half an elegy for the power he’s lost in giving it up.
Addiction memoirs tend to be stories of recovery, of battling demons and emerging stronger on the other side. But nicotine is different, and so is Nicotine. It’s a truth universally repeated that as a drug, nicotine is more addictive than heroin or cocaine, but it’s considerably less mind-altering. The vast majority of smokers are high-functioning addicts, even as they’re killing themselves at vastly higher rates: An estimated 480,000 adults die each year in the U.S. from smoking-related diseases, almost ten times the number who fatally overdosed on drugs in 2015.
Hens is aware of the bargain he’s made on behalf of his health. As a nonsmoker, he writes, he exercises daily and climbs mountains, switching out one compulsive behavior for other, considerably more healthful ones. But even a short passage about how cycling is his strongest physical discipline quickly evolves into a description of a terrifying road accident, in which he hits the side of a delivery van at forty kilometers an hour. After eight days in bed, he painfully makes his way to a bar near his apartment where he smokes his first cigarette in eight years: “I staggered, held on tightly to the rickety balustrade running around the bar and cried with happiness. My legs were shaking. I was back.”
The bargain then, is a a reluctant and fragile one: It’s harder to rhapsodize over the ecstasy of breathing clearly than it is to ponder the promise of the first cigarette in a crisp new pack. Nicotine is laced with moments that capture the truths most ex-smokers would shudder to admit. Seeing a hypnotherapist, Hens confesses, “I sometimes wish that I would have another accident. I wish that something comparably dreadful would throw me off track. Because if something bad, something really awful happened, I could start smoking again.”