WEST OF THEN

A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise

By Tara Bray Smith

Simon & Schuster. 319 pp. $24

This memoir carries a couple of bleak messages. The first: When an individual transgresses -- defies society -- it's the people closest to that individual who pay the price. The second: No one on earth is more boring than a heroin addict. The cooler they think they are, the more boring they are -- boring unto infinity and beyond.

"West of Then" is set in the Hawaiian Islands, where Tara Bray Smith grew up. It's the story of her efforts to connect with (or, better yet, rescue) her heroin-addicted mother. There are larger aspects to this narrative, of course -- the systematic wrecking of what might really have been an earthly paradise by pushy, arrogant, stupid white men, or the overall sorry fable of how futile it is to ask for love from a person who has none to give -- but it is the particular, small story here that is so convincing, so sad.

Bray Smith's family has been in Hawaii for something like five generations. Her great-great-grandfather was a land manager. He and his descendants amassed land and plantations and beach houses and money and reputation. Tara's maternal grandmother still entertains like a grand dame. They have a rich past to be proud of, and ashamed of. (After all, what have the white men really done since they invaded those shores more than 200 years ago? Besides exploiting the native populations, they've brought disease -- smallpox, syphilis, TB, typhus and every other kind of physical and moral rot.)

Now Tara's family faces another kind of rot. Her aunt Margaret is dying of lupus, and her mother has been twisting and writhing in a parallel universe roughly since Tara was 7. Karen, her gothically irresponsible mom, has had four girls by four different men. She's used crack and heroin to wretched excess. She's left her little daughters waiting in ice-cream parlors, libraries, airports and the back seats of sundry cars while she's gone out searching for a fix. She's lived on couches, in crash pads and now, in the year 2002, having married another addict, is homeless, living in parks, missing for months. Distraught, Tara, now 32, journeys home from New York City to the islands to hunt her mother down.

But this is a gross oversimplification: Addicts' lives automatically divide down into the people who can stand the situation -- who want in on the deal -- and those who can't. (I write from experience, unfortunately, and have written my own book on the subject.) Thus Karen's own mother has already washed her hands of her daughter. Karen's oldest daughter makes a very late appearance here -- she was adopted out years before -- but is enchanted by her "birth" mom. One of Karen's sisters, the lupus sufferer, adores her; another sister, Gail, won't have Karen in the house. Of Tara's own "real" sisters, whom she's grown up with, one has made a run for it to the mainland, and only one other shares Tara's longing for . . . their beloved mother.

Karen used to be beautiful, adventurous, the life of the party, the acme of fun. (Except she was hardly ever "there," physically, emotionally, spiritually.) Even now, dirty and covered with syringe sores, she dresses like a teenager in clothes she steals from Ross Dress for Less and blabs on incessantly about her romances, her "program," her relationship with a Higher Power, and how much she's done for her girls and everybody else: "Other people lead normal lives. I tried. . . . Remember? I tried. When Margaret was sick, I would go take care of her. Every day. I was working and I had kids and I would go and take care of my sister. That's all I've been doing my whole life. Taking care of everyone." As she says this, she picks at her sores and resists Tara's every effort to get her into rehab because they might "yell" at her.

Karen's a black hole of destruction; she's hell-bent on bringing everything down with her that she can find. On the other hand, Tara, the "Tara" we see in print here, is sure that if she can seek and find and rescue her mother -- and if she, Tara, can be "good," and do "right," and go to college and write, she'll be able to exert order and meaning on her family's fall from grace and, by extension, on her mother, who has, in the most cosmic sense, brought "scandal to the neighborhood."

With heroin addicts, there must always be the good, would-be rescuer who waits outside the locked bathroom door and believes every story. With people who won't or can't love, there must always be some human puppy, who whimpers, "Please love me, please!" There wouldn't be any game without both sides. Which means that "West of Then" is an enraging if beautiful book: You want to stride into its pages and get Tara out of there. You want to do anything to keep her from the pain that her heedless, vicious mom inflicts on her, but you can't.

And through it all, under the drama, seeps the numbing boredom of the heroin addict -- that place where narcissism and destruction connect to do their level best to tear down "ordinary" society. And the people who are closest to this process suffer the literal tortures of the damned.