Confession: I’m one of those readers who have developed an allergy regarding most Baby Boomer clichés. Like so many others, I’m tired of hearing about where they were when JFK was gunned down or how the Beatles changed their lives or why they did or did not go to San Francisco and wear flowers in their hair.
However, Forty Years Stoned, a memoir penned by former Washington Post staff writer Tom Huth, is a story so riveting and in some ways so unique that even though certain Boomer-centric milestones are repeated, the book is not stale.
Contrarily, due to the vibrant spirit of the author and also the exceedingly offbeat tale he has to tell, this memoir is nothing less than a heartbreaking delight. And if “heartbreaking delight” qualifies as a hefty oxymoron, a closer look is justified.
Right off the bat, Tom Huth’s narrative clarifies that he is actually a pre-Boomer. This is important. A vast number of books, movies, TV shows, and hit songs have focused on the lives and times of individual protagonists who were born between 1946 and 1955 (the first decade after the end of World War Two).
What this book convincingly establishes is how important a mere half-decade can be. Author Tom Huth was born in 1942. He anchors his narrative to the year 1972 as a starting point for myriad life changes that affected him after the 1960s ended.
As the author puts it, with admirable succinctness: “I have just turned thirty. I am married to my college girlfriend from my hometown of Detroit. Carol and I are two middle-class kids pretending to be grown-ups. We are good friends but intimacy has eluded us. We live with our two children…I am sporting a big Jerry Rubin beard to let my editors, and everyone else, know where I stand.”
For the record: Jerry Rubin was both a famous and infamous radical activist with wildfire Hendrix hair and a bushy beard, known mostly for his wide television exposure regarding the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the subsequent trial of the Chicago 7. Once upon a time, Rubin was lionized by the New Left and a portion of America’s youth; later in life, before he died, he’d converted to Yuppie culture and a career in finance. Now he’s a footnote.
But it’s crucial in this memoir for Tom Huth to pinpoint the cultural signposts that buoy one of his key observations:
“When the 1960s broke out, there were lots of young people my age—the war babies, the pre-boomers—who were caught in the middle. The civil-rights and free-speech movements exploded just after I’d finished college and gotten married and started a career and had a child, all by the age of 23. I seemed barely too settled to go south, to join the revolution. But I was way too young to escape its siren song. So over the years I have kept my establishment job and atoned for it by growing a beard, smoking dope….”
That’s the memoir’s ultimate leitmotif. The author does a meticulous, honest, eye-opening job of explicating how everything that was loosening up in the 1960s became downright unhinged, unwieldy, and unmoored as the 1970s unfolded.
Of course, his first marriage collapsed. Millions of Americans who married young in the 1960s were divorcing in record numbers by the mid-1970s.
And, of course, regular marijuana smoking became for Huth’s demographic just as much of a daily and nightly routine as beer, wine, and whiskey (plus tobacco) were for innumerable American adults. The tingles of “this is illegal” added to its allure.
Instead of worshipping at Sinatra’s altar of martini bliss and Rat Pack iconography, Tom Huth and cohorts idolized Bob Dylan. Regardless of the great cultural shifts induced by the Reagan Era, they comported themselves as hippies forever.
But then the heartbreak occurs. In Forty Years Stoned, readers are plunged into the parallel universe of serious illness. All the predictable issues of a wayfaring archetype (and Huth is encyclopedic in his recollection of everything from fleeting Open Marriage trends to the inevitable miseries inflicted on young children, when their parents are pushing 40 and are still “on the road”) give way to a superb set of meditations about the illness of the author’s second wife, Holly.
Described in the book’s dedication as “a woman who has made an eloquent performance art out of her living, and her dying,” the heart of this memoir belongs to Holly Young Huth. Who is still alive, by the way, Parkinson’s disease be damned.
Forty Years Stoned is a lyrical tribute to the palliative, healing, inspiring, and perennial toking of marijuana in the lives of Tom and Holly Huth, who were both at ease with regular marijuana use long before her Parkinson’s diagnosis.
But in the many years that followed the onset of her disease, as Tom Huth became more than a husband and rose to the challenge of becoming his wife’s primary caregiver, the use of marijuana (in a judicious, disciplined way) continued to be their essential balm.
In recent years, the arguments in favor of medicinal marijuana and a whole passel of decriminalization efforts have led to significant social acceptance of pot. This gentle memoir reminds us with acute details and astute intelligence how marijuana and its many adherents have waited all their lives for pot usage to be accepted as readily as cocktails. Yet, it’s also a love story and a true-life tale of one couple’s spiritual quest.
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