When Crack Was Wack: Ray Shell’s Lost Drug Novel


Out of Print


In my Harlem household back in the seventies, cigarettes were smoked and liquor was consumed, but drugs were considered the worst thing in the world. When I was in eighth grade and becoming curious about marijuana, my mom found a couple of High Times magazines stashed in my bedroom dresser and nearly lost her mind. Still, as a nerdy teenager who wanted to be a bad boy as long as it didn’t get me into trouble, I often romanticized the get-high life. I was too scared to actually participate in any real drug use, but that didn’t stop me from reading books about pot puffers, pill poppers, and heroin shooters.

Some of my friends gained their narcotics knowledge from the Holloway House Publishing writer posse, which included the infamous smack scribe Donald Goines, whose debut, Dopefiend (1971), was written while he was incarcerated. But somehow, I’d taken up Nelson Algren’s gloomy novel The Man with the Golden Arm and the teenage heroin wildlife poetics of Jim Carroll’s brilliant The Basketball Diaries. A few years later, in the pages of Rolling Stone, I discovered the work of the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who was the first writer I knew (besides the comedian Richard Pryor) who talked openly about sniffing cocaine. As the decade progressed, I began seeing cocaine referred to more and more often in the pages of Interview, New York, and other fashionable glossies, usually in relation to Studio 54, Truman Capote, the infamous Annie Hall sneeze scene, or the cool rockers such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Rick James.

Still, in all of the sordid drug novels I consumed during that period, I don’t recall reading any books that concentrated on coke sniffers. Fast-forward to the Orwellian year of 1984, three years after my high school graduation. That August, Jay McInerney’s “Bolivian marching powder”–fueled text, Bright Lights, Big City, a tale of a nightclubbing fact-checker and wannabe-writer cokehead, transformed cocaine into a must-have accessory. While the book might’ve been a cautionary tale for some, others viewed it as a celebration. That same year, the producer Michael Mann’s genre-changing, coke-inspired Miami Vice debuted and further perpetrated the myth—just as Scarface had the year before—that cocaine was cool.

As bad luck would have it, a month after the debut of Miami Vice, a cocaine avalanche began falling on the black and Latino sections of New York City that would cripple the communities for decades. The potent powder, once so expensive that few hood folks could afford it, suddenly became cheap and accessible. This led to the great crack attack. Some say the name crack described the crackling sound the drug made in the pipe when the lighter hit the rock, while others maintained the moniker was given because it would crack your brain. Certainly, the uptown Manhattan residents that were my neighbors couldn’t imagine the chaos and misery that was about to befall our community.

“I suppose that most people thought it was a passing drug fad that would come and go,” says the Brooklyn-based writer Derrick Ferguson, author of the pulp-fiction Dillon series. “Drugs were certainly no stranger to black neighborhoods. Still, the sheer speed with which crack and the whole crack lifestyle took over black neighborhoods astounds me. Most people just saw it as another way to get high; nobody thought it would be such a devastating plague that it would destroy whole families and communities. By the time we woke up and realized that crack wasn’t just another drug, it was far too late.”

Uptown, the once-respectable residential blocks where I had dwelled for most of my then young life swiftly became an open-air drug market, with dealers slinging crack as openly as if it were legal. Sold in five- and ten-dollar plastic vials with various colored tops, it resembled rocky chunks of soap to be smoked in small glass pipes. Crack was more potent and addictive than the powder form of coke, and it was said that the first hit was the best high ever. Addicts continued beaming up constantly because they were trying to recapture that wonderful blast. Living in those poorer communities, even if one wasn’t a fiend (the word most used to describe the then new wave of crack junkies), it was likely that you knew someone who was addicted to or selling product.

When Benny, the artist Keith Haring’s assistant, became a crackhead in 1986, Haring was inspired to paint his now famous Crack Is Wack mural on a handball court wall on 128th Street near the Harlem River Drive. According to Matthew Israel, the director of the Art Genome Project, Haring was appalled by what was happening in the country—but especially in New York City. In Haring’s words, “Seeing the slow reaction (as usual) of the government to respond, I decided I had to do an anti-crack painting.” Haring’s startling work was a superb piece of neograffiti that would be seen by millions, but unfortunately, it had little effect on the growing rate of crack addiction in the city.

Nine years after the drug first hit New York City, the author-actor Ray Shell published the brilliant crack novel Iced, a first-person account told by the self-loathing addict Cornelius Washington Jr. The forty-four-year-old protagonist was once an upwardly mobile Columbia University scholarship student, fast-tracked to be a lawyer and a six-figure record executive, until a few deaths, disappointments, and major mistakes derailed his life. Cornelius becomes a slave to crack, falling into a hell that proves impossible to escape. Supported by his mother and his younger sister, Lorraine, who takes care of him despite her husband’s disdain, Cornelius forgets how to be independent. Lorraine makes sure the rent and other bills are paid, but she eventually relocates to California with her own growing family. Left to his own devices, Cornelius seems to relish in his irresponsibility. He makes one bad decision after another. “Reality fuckin’ hurts,” he declares early on.

Richard Price’s crack novel Clockers came out a year before Iced, but for all of its wonder, Price’s story was told from the perspective of the dealers and police, while Shell’s novel was about the victims. Shell was inspired to start writing the novel in 1990 after returning to the Pink Houses—the East New York housing projects where he’d lived until leaving for college twenty years before. Written in the form of an intense stream-of-consciousness journal, Iced recounts Cornelius’s “this me that useda be” past as we learn how he became the crack zombie of the book’s early nineties present.

While Iced has been out of print for years, the producer-director Lee Daniels (The Butler, Empire) recently bought the film rights. In a 2017 Hollywood Reporter interview, Daniels called the book a “tour de force” that was “brilliant, just brilliant.” He first optioned the book in 2008, with Lenny Kravitz rumored to be playing the lead, but Daniels wound up adapting Sapphire’s disturbing Push (he changed the name to Precious) instead. “Ten years ago, it was all about what Lee could get financing for. But now, with Lee’s relationship at Fox, he can do whatever he wants,” Shell told me during a phone interview in January. An American who has lived in London since the early eighties, the soft-spoken Shell had performed his one-man musical Phoenix at Joe’s Pub in New York City a few days before.

Initially, the filmmaker considered making a ten-part miniseries but decided that a single feature would better suit the material. “There are things we can do with a feature that we would not be able to do in a series,” Shell says. If done correctly, the film could match the cinematic intensity of Darren Aronofsky’s artfully gritty adaption of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). The novelist-essayist Woody Haut, author of Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, has seen similarities between the two books for years. “Iced most resembles Selby’s Requiem when it comes to portraying states of degradation,” Haut says. “Though Iced is even more extreme and apparently personal while, at the same time, pursuing an inner reality that is constructed; it’s absolutely convincing. Iced not only conveys a harsh reality regarding time, place, and community, but there’s also a level of artifice in Shell’s novel that’s different from other drug novels. I’m not quite sure how that expresses itself other than its unwillingness to compromise, but making itself more immediate and no less real.”



A recent photo of Ray Shell. Photo: Flying Perfect Media


Built on a garbage dump, the Pink Houses opened in 1957. They were composed of twenty-two eight-story buildings named after Louis H. Pink, a former chairman of the New York State Housing Authority—a man dedicated to eradicating slums. Described by the New York Times as “squat brick towers turned inward around concrete pathways,” the Pink Houses were like an urban village when Shell’s family moved in in 1960. Children played peacefully, and Shell’s mother’s friends were always attentive, ready to call out if any of the children misbehaved. After he went away to Emerson College in Boston, in 1970, his parents relocated to the promise of Queens.

At Emerson, Shell studied drama and voice. Off campus, he sang lead for the rock group Soundcheck. “Those were my hippie-dippie days,” he says with a laugh. “I thought Boston was going to be this very racist city, but I loved it there. It was a big university city. Emerson was a hard school—very competitive, but I loved it.” Although he returned to New York for a few years at the end of the seventies, by the eighties, when crack began dripping heavy into the bloodstream of the city, Shell was living in England, where he sang background with Howard Devoto’s group Magazine (Magic, Murder and the Weather), wailed with the Police on their Synchronicity world tour, and appeared as Rusty the Steam Train in the traveling production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical spectacle Starlight Express.

At the same time, the Pink Houses were becoming a notorious drug haven of blaring boom boxes, wild pit bulls, screaming sirens, piss-stench staircases, broken elevators, and numerous shattered dreams. In that poverty-stricken neighborhood, the only people living large were the drug dealers. “In 1990, I came to New York City to visit, and me and my sister Ginny decided to go to our old Brooklyn neighborhood,” Shell tells me. “I’d read about crack, but I had no idea how much it had changed my old neighborhood. That visit changed everything.”

Shell first went to see his former barber, Mr. Brown, who had cut all the boys’ hair when he was a kid, and he inquired about his old friend Julius Carter. Shell was shocked to hear that Julius still lived in the building. “It was surprising because he was the smartest kid in Pink Houses,” he recalls. “He was the guy our parents all told us we should be like. I thought he’d be on Wall Street or working in Washington, D.C. Mr. Brown just looked at me and said, That crack got him. The man upstairs is not the man that you left. I had to go see for myself because none of what he was saying was making sense.”

Shell made his way to the apartment and knocked. He heard movement, but it took a few more bangs before there was an eye at the peephole. When the door finally opened, Shell was shocked by what he saw. “My first impression was that a satyr had opened the door,” he says. “Some kind of half man, half animal creature; I could recognize the dude, but he had teeth missing, his hair was crazy, and he just looked dirty. In the past, the brother was always clean, but what was in front of me was a worn-out crack addict. It was sad.”

He had caught Julius on one of his more lucid days. Julius invited Shell and his sister into the broken-down apartment. “There was nothing in the flat, not even a chair,” Shell continues. “When I asked him what happened to the furniture, he said, They took it. They who? I wanted to know, and he answered, The ghost people. They come in here and take my stuff, the ghosts. He would never admit the real problem or that he had anything to do with it. I stayed with him for a half hour. Imagine if you came back home to see the person you most admired, the man that all the women used to love, and they had become a broken-down crack addict. I left feeling as though somebody had died.”

It was through the metaphorical death of his friend that Iced was born. Shell printed out reams of research about crack addicts and dealers and interviewed junkies on the street. “They would just tell me all this stuff about the bad things they had done or the constant paranoia they suffered,” he says. “They told me all kinds of things. I didn’t have any money to pay them, but they told me the whole deal. Their stories fed my novel.” Shell wrote the book’s first draft in ten months, between September 1991 and July 1992.  The majority of the novel was set in the fictional Blue Houses.

“If you notice, after the first twenty pages, the writing kind of changes and becomes something else,” he says. “I was just writing, but I didn’t quite know what it was. I figured the easiest thing to write would be a diary because it didn’t need the same kind of structure; it could be anything.”

The book was originally titled Diary of a Crack Head. Stylistically, Iced blends noir (conjuring David Goodis’s doomed dead-end men) and horror. The book is as much about families and their dysfunctions as it is about crack. The tragic death of Cornelius’s younger brother, Nate, hangs over the narrative like a specter. Shell, who was born in Wilson, North Carolina, calls himself “a scandal baby, a love child” because his mother was unmarried. “My mom didn’t have a husband, so we came to New York when I was two.” In New York, his mother married a preacher named Charles Shell and and moved the family to the Pink Houses. Shell grew up in the church and learned a lot about writing from reading the Bible. “Daddy decided that the Lord had called him, and he started his own church called the Holy House of Prayer.” Later, his mother also became a minister. Shell read the Bible every day, describing it as “absolutely beautiful.” When he was in high school, he discovered the works of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.

“I liked Ellison, but after I read Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin became my main influence,” Shell says. “It felt as though he was writing about my life. Baldwin was so intelligent, and his writing was so smart, but at the same time, it didn’t lose the roots and simplicity or honesty of his vision. I also love Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, but James Baldwin, to me, is the best writer. That’s my man.”

Shell is not preachy or moralistic about the origins of crack, which was spread by Ronald Reagan’s CIA as a means to raise money to fund the contra war in Nicaragua. But Shell doesn’t ignore the politics that produced crack either. In one of my favorite passages in Iced, when Cornelius is riding the subway home after attending his sister’s birthday party, he philosophizes on the origins of dope in the hood.

“The Black dealers and addicts are low men on the drug totem pole,” he thinks. “The real power brokers are the White Government boys who allow the drugs to be imported into the country. The Black dealers are only modern-day slave overseers working for the White slave masters.” More than two decades after writing that section, Shell says, “I didn’t really want there to be any political rants, but at the same time, the book is very political with all that stuff because it’s completely obvious to me that the black community was targeted.


When I first discovered the paperback at Saint Mark’s Bookshop in 1994, I recall reading the Maya Angelou blurb on the back. “Iced is a powerhouse,” she wrote. “Ray Shell writes beautifully. The story is heartbreaking. I kept putting it down and picking it up again—it won’t let me go.” For me, Iced proved to be as intoxicating and addictive as crack itself. Shell’s boom-bap fiction hits as hard as a RZA beat.

Shell once wrote a short play when he was a thirteen-year-old at summer camp and in high school had a knack for writing book reports for made-up books, but Iced was his first published work. “Through friends, I somehow got those first twenty-four pages to then Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch,” Shell said. Pietsch would later go on to publish David Foster Wallace’s supposed masterwork, Infinite Jest. “He eventually rejected the complete manuscript, but that was cool, because it got picked up by Random House instead.”

Iced was reviewed in The New Yorker (“Its first-person narrative is energized by the power of the speaking voice, which expresses itself in a jagged, syncopated style reminiscent of a rap monologue … It’s difficult to put down, even during its most violent moments”) and the LA Times (“Shell’s writing is frighteningly compelling”), but it quickly disappeared. Even twenty years later, I only know two other people who’ve read it. All the praise and celebration that James Frey’s best-selling A Million Little Pieces received really should’ve gone to Iced,” my friend, the former book agent Beverly Williams, told me. “Stylistically, the two books—both published by Random House—are very similar to the point that it appears that Frey might’ve ‘borrowed’ some of Shell’s textual approach.”

As much as I admired Shell’s book, by the last page I truly hated Cornelius Washington Jr. Yet, while the protagonist isn’t a likeable character, he is a real one. “If Iced isn’t a true story, it could be,” the writer Derrick Ferguson says. “I worked at a substance-abuse facility for a few years and some of the stories I heard from the residents were exactly like incidents in the book. Sometimes a book like this has to come along that has such potent imagery and white-hot words of truth to remind readers that there’s a lot more to life than agonizing over which new smart phone you should buy or which satellite TV package you should have.”

It would be years before Shell sat down to write another novel. “Between acting and singing, writing was like a hobby for me,” Shell says. “But now, I’m ready to sit down and produce more.” He is currently working on Feedin’ Miranda, a book about two families of different races living in the age of Trump. It is narrated by God. “People wanted me to write a sequel to Iced, which is something I’m currently considering,” he said. “After I finish my next book, I plan on revisiting Cornelius. Maybe this time he’ll have a happy ending.”


Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales writes the Blacklist book column for Catapult and has contributed essays to New York, The Village Voice, Wax Poetics, and Pitchfork.