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“Chapter 37: WarZone 2008” – excerpt from MENTAL SHRAPNEL, by Phillip O’Neil

“Sinequanon threads of Gonzo journalism tie hot shards of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid fantasies to Kingsley Amis’ insouciant British humour in this 400-page pill, as we are flung between war-torn Sarajevo & post-communist Prague between the early 90s & the late 00s. A war correspondent come psychotherapist, Christopher Mahler, is sequestered into a theatrical vortex of alternating comedic & tragic skirmishes. In an attempt to uncover the true cause of his fugue states, Chris delves into the kind of analysis which promises to drag him & the reader screaming into an ignominious past of flak jackets fantastic journeys & love lost in unaccountable circumstances. Many a seemly character enters & exits this cathartic trip as our sardonic protagonist Randle McMurphies his way through a Dante’s Inferno of lost souls. With sensitive, lyrical wit O’Neil teases the most devastating (ir)realities into palatable, poetic medicine. Mental Shrapnel is the author’s nostalgic suicide letter to Prague, left on a mantle piece over the flaming fires of hell, propped up by a bowl of rotting oranges.”—Michael Rowland

“Equal parts memoir, war narrative, & love story, Mental Shrapnel takes you deep into the wounded psyche of a man forced to put himself back together when the health care “system” fails him completely. Reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Down Below, or Kleinzeit, Mental Shrapnel paints a darkly humorous portrait of a fractured mind in a damaged healthcare system. Replete with a cast of larger-than-life characters, patients, junkies, & war criminals, Mental Shrapnel probes the darkest recesses of the human psyche in this story of a dizzying freefall into madness and a painful climb back to sanity – an intense vertiginous journey that will leave readers in doubt of their own sanity as much as Chris’s. Mental Shrapnel also paints an intimate nuanced picture of the city of Prague that will be instantly recognizable to longtime residents or serve as a psychedelic walking tour for those who have never traversed the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the city. Not a novel for the faint of heart, but still a compelling read full of wit, heart, and history.”—Jeffrey Howe

Chapter thirty-seven

WarZone 2008

I had got the bird’s eye view images down pat. I knew the canals were probably the only unchanging route into the heart. Canals cut diagonally south east to north west meeting the main Black Canal. Centre of town (one of the centres of town) was an island in the hairpin shape of a pig’s snout.

I turned up the collar of my coat and watched my breath blow into the night: watched the lights play on the mosaic of trash of the canal. Lights from the pub and casino neon: red, yellow and green; shimmering flag of some mirage country. Ducks wading with one foot trailing, seagulls squabbling over pecking order, Canada geese rasping anchovy tongues, crows cawing in the sycamores, maples and planes. Either side of the canal rising a couple hundred metres up the steep sides of the ravine where two citadels faced each other. Night lights fanned inverted triangles of light up their sheer grey walls. They looked cubist, trompe l’oeil, filmset flats slotted like lift doors. One was the mirror image of its twin with kilometres of zigzag ramps up the inclines.

Inside, the citadels were a hark back to the times before the war here was privatised. Mercenaries only. The hills were networks of miles of whitewashed vaulted corridors lit from the outside by musket and crossbow slits and slats. Armies lived and died in dead end bayonet battles, typhoid and dysentery outbreaks and old age. Food pulleyed up in huge barrels for the defenders now used to transport tourists. Guided tours of the citadels lasted one hour or several days. All variations on a theme – tall tales of corridor skirmishes and the kind of inactive derring-do which was the hallmark of the besieged. All from the halcyon days when all countries could choose to go to war before war privatisation of the noughties. Campsite and hostel in an Arlington sized wooden crossed cemetery. For a few credits more you could experience a rare old punishment of the locals who were tied in twos like Knights Templar and thrown into the canal: idea adapted for bungee dips. The favourite for honeymooners taking naked nocturnal jumps bound in the 69 sucking cock and flickering cunnilingus as they dived. Base jumpers aiming to ejaculate on Diwali, Guy Fawkes or anniversary firework nights. Other options were human Catherine wheels and pirate ships that rocked between the citadels and over the black water. Tours took so long as guides give expanded explanation in several languages including sign, Mandarin, Arabic and mime. Reenactments daily, realistic and gory enough to capture the attention of the younger members of the groups, sent around the sites in gaudy rollercoaster cars (see Professor Steinfelder’s Treatments).

I felt the toxicity of the whiskies I ordered up at The Cradle. Ticker tape heart and amphetamine rush. Felt on the perimeter of a coronary. Think of my old mate, Sheikh Castanet who fell down dead after describing feeling a bed of nails springing up against his chest. Partly due to cut coke sniffed through The White China Man’s cane, decorated as beachfront candy. Funky walking stick that could be used as support, snorkel or rudimentary saxophone. Sheikh rattled and rolled and all for the price of a wrap of meth.

Decks of the citadels were like microscope slides, sliding out across the canal from giant pagodas in the shape of spinal columns accessed through pneumatic water capsules. As one went up another went down like some thermometer dialectic. Capsules travelled up and down the grey pink tones of Scalenus Anticus and Medius, opened like curtains to reveal the vertebrae floors. Penthouse bars were available exclusively for private functions called The Atlas Suites. Waitresses in bunny dresses, purple basques or velveteen hipsters played simple minded and forgetful so tables over ordered and tipped well for drinks cut with wormwood. All clientele were breathalysed for alcohol and drug levels and directed accordingly to appropriate bars. Drinks served were inversely proportional to levels found. Heavy drinkers were served low alcohol mass marketed beers. Unless their DNA swabs alerted owners to outstanding arrest warrants where they were sent straight to bars serving drinks imprinted on the psyche as ‘wife beaters’, ‘date-rapers’ or taurine amphetamine cocktails and directed to exits where plain clothed men baited them into antisocial, GBH or ABH encounters and Black Maria them to interrogation cells. Mostly, the drinks were nothing but fruit juice with glass rims rinsed with alcohol. Outside of the vertebrae vestibules, slouching informers and panhandlers in capped sleeve shirts bore pumped biceps tattooed with martial arts weapons. Women dressed in loose organic dresses and wraps, diamante hair slides and necklaces of teeth human, canine and equine with babies or toddlers sluggish from drugged breastmilk and tranquilliser laced milks.

Guests here were lodged in reconstructed jail cells, two to a bed in metal bunks. I paid for the experience of sleeping the way celebrity historical inmates spent a night or more. Striped pyjamas and prison blankets, ten foot square cells opened onto corridors where hotel staff dress like KAPOs and SS men and women and punctuate their discipline with cosh designed mobile phones. Maids in bondage gear offered their services in laundry rooms and basement parking facilities fucking in the backs of military lorries or strapping dildos fuck pot bellied businessmen jerking off to Tahitian porn films. Maids also fucked heroin suppositories called ‘enablers’ and cul dépendents up troublesome clients’ arseholes and blackmailed them for cash.

I followed my nose, cut through the lobby of this Holiday Inn 25. It was a clear night with enough stars visible through the orange haze of the night so I pushed the elevator button for one of the Atlas Suites. A revolving glass restaurant promised a fusion menu: salmon bisque with mint chocolate, fried beetroot and peanut butter sausages kind of fare. Just my goddam luck, I thought as I watched a party in full swing. Seems like the whole diamond district has upped stakes. It was Purim, the one day in the year the Orthodox get totally hammered and allow themselves the aftershock of hangover.

The fine, upstanding seemed fine upstanding, so there was a free distressed leather couch by one of the glass panels. With its simulacrum the other side of the black cut, the place had all the majesty of a punch in the face. Mortsel still lingered in my nasal passages. I waited on service, chancing a mojito. So I looked over at Pont Neuf which gave the quarter its name.

Pont Neuf straddled the valley like one giant insect. It was a three in one. Carried most of the east west traffic in and out of the city on the dual carriageway: ran hollow for the redline metro and due to its height, performed the function and assumed the nomenclature of the USDM’s Suicide Bridge all along its half kilometre span.

The waiter brought me my mojito which had more foliage inside than an arboretum drain. My smile was more of a twitch. After sucking some of the drink I picked up one of the magazines which had an odd take on the tourist trade. Mind you, in the damned competitive world of quick and easy breaks you flaunted what you had. And Pont Neuf had, well, Pont Neuf. One eye on the outside neon wash I picked up the local rag, The Pont Neuf Times.

© Phillip O’Neil

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
October 2020
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