How the Original Drugstore Cowboy Snatched Defeat From the Jaws of Victory
The cult classic was gold for star Matt Dillon and director Gus Van Sant, but not for James Fogle, who wrote the original novel. Fogle died in 2012, addicted, imprisoned and obscure. His haunted life left a haunting legacy, including a stack of novels yet to be published.
When officers slapped the cuffs on the pair of suspects exiting the back door of the just-robbed Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Redmond, Washington, on May 27, 2010, it didn’t seem a remarkable bust. However, a few things did make it stand out in the minds of the arresting officers. For one thing, this drugstore heist was utterly brazen. The two dope fiends allegedly strolled into the drugstore and bound the employees at gunpoint, before locking them in a storeroom and ransacking the place. If someone hadn’t managed to trip the silent alarm, they would have made off with several garbage bags stuffed with grade-A narcotics.
The other thing that made this bust stand out were the suspects themselves. They were a lot older than the usual junkie ne’er-do-wells the cops were used to dealing with. At first glance, they could have been a pair of grandfathers out for an afternoon stroll. The younger of the two was Marvin Flowers Roscoe, 61, whose sleepy-eyed demeanor marked him as someone who had spent a lifetime in pursuit of the junk rush. The sallow-faced, rail-thin junkie who seemed to be the ringleader of the duo looked like a walking cadaver. The cops would later discover he was 71—younger than they expected, but still a ripe old age for a skag-addicted stick-up man.
Neither robber resisted when the police blocked their escape. They had been through this pitiful routine more times than either could count. It wasn’t until long after both had been booked and charged that a phone call to the station signaled that one of the suspects—the one who went by the name of James Fogle—was something of a celebrity, a once-renowned author who was wanted in connection with a string of burgled drugstores in the Northwest.
This bust would mark the beginning of the tragic final act of one of the most talented, unlucky and self-destructive lives in American letters. The original Drugstore Cowboy had been popped for the last time.
When indie director Gus Van Sant’s cult classic Drugstore Cowboy hit the big screens in 1989, it was a transformative experience for almost everybody involved. For Van Sant, it marked the beginning of his ascent into the Hollywood mainstream: The critical success of this tale of a gang of junkie misfits who feed their habits by robbing pharmacies led directly to New Line Cinema green-lighting My Own Private Idaho, which Van Sant had been trying to get off the ground for years. The film also provided a meaty role for a young Matt Dillon. The character of Bob Hughes gave Dillon the chance to break out of the teen heartthrob corner he’d been painted into and portray a more complex, dangerous type of leading man. His performance—seething with malevolent charm, a bad boy you can’t help but root for—is one for the ages. The scenes in which Hughes shoots the shit with the old junkie Tom the Priest (expertly played by iconic junkie and writer William S. Burroughs) are a milestone in druggie cinema, despite the fact that Van Sant had to fight tooth and nail to have them included in the final cut.
Eerily prescient in this era of rampant painkiller misuse, Drugstore Cowboy was one of the first movies to talk about Rx drug addiction. David Yost, a lifelong friend of James Fogle (and co-writer of the screen adaptation), said in 1986: “[Drugstore Cowboy] deals with a subculture of drug addicts, namely those who go to the pharmacy instead of the street to get their drugs. I don’t even think mainstream America is aware it’s happening.”
The only person whose fortunes didn’t immediately improve when critics fell for Drugstore Cowboy was the author of the still-unpublished novel that Van Sant’s movie was based upon. David Yost had gotten the manuscript into Van Sant’s hands and helped negotiate the deal when the director fell in love with the story. The $35,000 Avenue Pictures paid for the screenplay would have normally been a godsend to the constantly scuffling author, but when the deal was being inked James Fogle was cooling his heels in Washington State Penitentiary after landing a 20-year bit over a Cowlitz County drugstore heist.
Fogle was a most unlikely figure to write a book that would become an all-time-great movie. From the moment he learned to walk, he was trouble with a capital-T, the kid the neighborhood parents thought of as a bad seed who later blossomed into a career criminal with a sixth-grade education. His father was reportedly abusive, and according to Fogle’s mother he was in the habit of beating his son with a razor strop. Sometimes he forced the young boy to drink whiskey to “prove he was a man.”
At age 12 Fogle was sent to a youth detention center. At age 15 he busted out and hit the road. He made it as far as San Diego before his mother caught up with him and dragged him back to that hated institution. The next year, at age 16, Fogle joined the Army on a fake baptismal record, before promptly stealing a car and going AWOL.
Trouble with the law was all that James Fogle really knew: He was busted the first time in his early teens and from then on spent as much time cooped up in prison as he did prowling the streets. His pattern was to get released and then immediately go on a drug-fuelled pharmacy robbing spree. The cops would lead him back to the Big House.
Some have suggested that Fogle felt more comfortable inside than out, and that this was the root of his apparent inability to stay on the straight and narrow. However, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out what made Fogle tick. Just page through Drugstore Cowboy: Bob Hughes is James Fogle—albeit a glamorized version. When Bob says, “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ‘em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes,” the world-weary, drug-addled author is speaking through his character. Fogle loved drugs, and unless you’re rich that means you will be entangled with the law.
Fogle was in his 50s when Drugstore Cowboy was released. He kept newspaper clippings documenting the film’s success underneath the mattress in his prison cell. With increasing excitement he counted the days until he came up for parole. This time he felt that he had a chance to do something different with his life. After all, now he was “James Fogle, the author of Drugstore Cowboy.”
It was during one of his prison stays that Fogle first started writing stories. He’d always been a dab hand at spinning a tale for the other inmates—he called it “taking a trip”—and his fellow convicts would huddle around him to catch every word. Later on, as he spun hilarious tales of scoring and fucking up for David Yost’s camera (see video below), his talent was as apparent as ever. As one of the women hanging with Fogle put it, “the best thing is they’re all true.”
With nothing but time on his hands Fogle decided to try bettering the books he’d been devouring while locked up. It turned out the countless hours he’d spent reading battered paperbacks hadn’t been wasted. Fogle had absorbed the tricks the authors used to keep the reader hooked. Almost without intending to, he became a hell of a writer.
Fogle was in his 50s and locked up in Washington State Penitentiary when Drugstore Cowboy was released. He kept newspaper clippings documenting the film’s success underneath the mattress in his tiny Walla Walla prison cell. With increasing excitement and apprehension he counted the days until he came up for parole. This time he felt that he had a chance to do something different with his life. After all, now he was “James Fogle, the author of Drugstore Cowboy.” The book had been published, with a blurb from William S. Burroughs praising its “hallucinatory reality.” Maybe—finally—James Fogle had a shot at going straight.
“This is the first time in my life that I ever got out and had anything,” he said to one interviewer prior to his release, with obvious pride.
Fogle lasted just 11 months on the outside before cops busted down the door of the seedy motel where he was staying. They found the author spaced out and surrounded by hundreds of prescription pills—the proceeds of his latest robbery. The cops slapped the cuffs on him, and joked that maybe now he could write another book. The Drugstore Cowboy was riding back inside.
“I had everything going for me,” Fogle said in a 1992 interview with the Seattle Times following that arrest. “But it wasn’t really different. After you do a lot of time it’s hard. You get out and you don’t really know anybody except the people you knew before you went in. Some psychiatrist told me I’d been locked up so long, I didn’t have any point of reference, you know? I always went back to what I knew.”
One of the very last people to deal with James Fogle on a professional level was Eric Vieljeux—the founder of 13e Note Editions, the daring French publisher who released a translation of Drugstore Cowboy last year. (Full disclosure: 13e also published French translations of several of my own books.) It had long been his dream to introduce Fogle’s work to French audiences, who he had no doubt would embrace the book as an authentic transmission from the underbelly of American life. But a certain weariness creeps into Vieljeux’s voice when our conversation turns to Fogle and his cruel fate.
“I searched for him for over a year,” Vieljeux tells me, “but without any success. Matt Dillon had told me that he had first met Mr. Fogle in jail back when they were shooting Drugstore Cowboy, and that James had been screwed out of movie royalties by some bastards who claimed they were representing him when they really weren’t. So I was extremely cautious, you know? I knew that once I found him any monies we paid had to go directly to him, and him only.”
“We found him soon after he got new charges tacked on for breaking into another pharmacy in Oregon,” Vieljeux says. “He was facing serious time. From there, I tracked him down to the county jail he was locked in awaiting his trial for the first robbery. I started a correspondence with him, sending $100 here and there, just a little something to help better his situation.”
“He was very bitter,” Vieljeux tells me. “He felt that the system had really fucked him, you know? He’d never carried guns, yet he’d spent over two thirds of his life in jail simply because of his addiction. If someone would have just helped him find a steady, legal source there’s no way he’d have felt compelled to steal. But he was an old man, and he wasn’t going to quit at this stage.”
Over time the initially wary Fogle thawed, and became convinced of Vieljeux’s good intentions. He recommended that 13e Note purchase the rights to publish Drugstore Cowboy via a man he described as “his only friend,” David Yost. As Fogle’s trial dragged its way through the legal system, Fogle continued to communicate with Vieljeux via handwritten missives, inscribed into marble notebooks.
“He was very bitter,” Vieljeux tells me. “He felt that the system had really fucked him, you know? He’d never carried guns [the ‘weapon’ he’d used for the Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy job turned out to be a BB gun], yet he’d spent over two thirds of his life in jail simply because of his addiction. He said it was all really down to the lack of available methadone programs to avoid scoring in the streets. If someone would have just helped him find a steady, legal source there’s no way he’d have felt compelled to steal. But he was an old man, and he wasn’t going to quit at this stage.”
Suddenly Vieljeux chuckles. “He was a wonderful storyteller. Even then, at the end of his rope. He told me this hilarious story about getting busted after pulling a job—they were still at the scene and he got into the stash. Got high and fell asleep. When he woke up the cops were all over him, ready to take him downtown.”
In August 2010 Yost had written to Vieljeux with intriguing news: Fogle had written eight other book-length manuscripts. But Yost’s email sounded a note of urgency: “Jim’s health is not good, as he has hepatitis C. He is now 73 and does not think he will get out of jail again before he dies. Recently he expressed interest in writing his autobiography. It would be a huge boost to his spirits if something could happen.”
James Fogle was on borrowed time. In a bitterly ironic twist it wasn’t his lifelong dependence on narcotics that caused his ill health; he was dying because he had contracted mesothelioma, via exposure to asbestos. While incarcerated, Fogle was shunted into machine shops in an effort to train him to work with steel pipes—to become “employable”—where he was exposed to the cancer-causing substance.
“David had been editing Fogle’s work,” Vieljeux says. “One day, completely out of the blue, we received five or six unpublished James Fogle manuscripts, including the sequel to Drugstore Cowboy. Incredible stuff! I found it truly remarkable that these books were never published in the aftermath of Drugstore Cowboy.”
Currently Fogle’s unpublished manuscripts are in the possession of David Yost again. Plans by 13e Note to publish more Fogle books fell through when the house succumbed to the current industrywide recession and ceased publishing new works. Collectively they represent a literary treasure trove: Thanks to a combination of over-zealous law enforcement, chronic drug addiction and simple bad luck, Fogle is a rare commodity—a writer with name recognition whose back catalogue remains tantalizingly unexploited. While publishing houses fight to discover unpublished shopping lists by Charles Bukowski, a sequel to one of the defining junk novels of our time remains in a proverbial drawer, unknown and unread.
Although the movie is faithful to the book, Gus Van Sant did make one subtle yet critical change to the plot when he adapted Drugstore Cowboy. At the end of the novel, Bob Hughes—a tragic anti-hero to the bitter end—dies alone after finally getting clean. In the movie the final shot shows him determinedly clinging to life. Unfortunately for James Fogle there was nobody around to sprinkle a little Hollywood magic over his final act.
“It was very sad when the end came,” Vieljeux says. “A few months after we published Drugstore Cowboy James died all alone in the joint.”
James Fogle finally got his long-delayed write-up in The New York Times, in the form of an obituary. He died on August 23, 2012, in the infirmary ward of the Washington State Reformatory. He was 75.
“It seemed to me that James had given up a long time ago,” Eric Vieljeux says with resignation. “He had stopped writing his novels many years before I came into contact with him. Only David was still out there trying to pitch James’s books around, keeping his legacy alive with little success. It seemed simply that nobody cared.”
Vieljeux adds quietly, “Right up until the end, nobody really cared.”
Tony O’Neill is the author of books including Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He most recent piece for Substance.com was about 10 first-time LSD trippers.
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