“I have smoked well over a hundred thousand cigarettes in my life,” writes Gregor Hens in his achingly lucid new memoir, “Nicotine.”

As an opening salvo, we can safely say we are in the company of a street-accredited tobacco addict.

“And each one of those cigarettes meant something … a signal, medication, a stimulant or a sedative, they were a plaything, an accessory, a fetish object, something to help pass the time, a memory aid, a communication tool or an object of meditation.”

He’s clearly given the issue some thought, knows wherefrom he speaks.

“I no longer smoke.”

Getting there was daring; much was at stake, such as the way he navigated — the way he is — in the world.

“Nicotine” is a serious investigation.

Hens’ memories — spun as stories, for he is a piquant, enchanting storyteller — follow one after another, though not before they have been surgically dissected for elements of self-discovery lurking in that memory’s cigarette.

First, however, Will Self’s introduction is a gloriously mad prelude, dragging luxuriously, gratifyingly on tobaccos of “Stygian darkness and Samsonian strength,” which, the nicotine Jokerbet rapidly absorbed, jump-starts the nasty state of withdrawal, “and thus mistakes the relief of these symptoms” — firing up the next cig — “for the semblance of pleasure.”


By Gregor Hens

Other Press, $16.95

Self also introduces the significance played by smoking’s associations.

Hens’ stories are like immersions into post-post-World War II Germany, so add that particular light and air.

At 5 years of age, he is allowed his first New Year’s Eve midnight. His mother gives him a lit cigarette to light a bottle rocket. She wears a “short, light-colored musk beaver coat, and her midlength blond hair peeked out from under an electric blue hat.”

Hens steals a puff, and in that first head rush detects “a living entity within me,” an out-of-body perception of self and well-being.

Later, nicotine triggered images and words, indeed “an inner world,” offering “an experience that was narratable.” The birth of a storyteller.

While Hens searches for his addiction’s source — genetics, Freudian, exposure — and submits to hypnosis’ trance, he offers flashes of Cigarette Power: equipping the heroes of his novels with “distinctive tobacco wares,” like Black Devil brand, or relapsing to enjoy the nicotine “crackling in my brain like a thousand tiny explosions … this magnificent firework,” even contemplating that “if something bad, something really awful happened, I could start smoking again.”

Despite qualms that the last cigarette might extinguish his access to literarily fertile material, “Nicotine” is proof positive that Hens still has the stuff.

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