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Deep Sniff

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Member Reviews

A short book about the cultural meaning of poppers and their relationship to pleasure and gayness. They’re apparently still widely available in the UK and the USA, “thanks to a pact between authorities and sellers. Everyone agrees to say that these products are not for human consumption, which means they are labelled with fake uses like ‘room odouriser’ and ‘boot cleaner.’” Interestingly, unlike with opiates, pharmacos apparently were actually worried that people—that is to say, young gay men—were using the product for pleasure and reported that to the FDA. I guess pleasure that makes you want to have sex (Zmith repeatedly emphasizes how poppers can be used to relax physically for anal sex) is more morally concerning than pleasure that just makes you happy. Zmith also argues that popper marketing participated in the promotion of a muscular, aggressive gay masculinity, e.g., an ad for Locker Room poppers “showed a butch superhero with a six-pack, cape and battering-ram thighs leaning against a locker door beside the words ‘Purity power potency.’” Thus poppers “were both countercultural, simply by being gay, and also deeply conventional in how they were marketed.” Zmith also discusses how moral panics over poppers were intertwined with moral panic over AIDS—indeed, one contrarian insisted for many years that it was poppers, and not HIV, that caused AIDS. I loved the bit about disputes at a gay hotline over what to say about poppers—one volunteer wrote, “People who sniff poppers need an extra physical kick from sex as they get no emotional satisfaction,” while another responded, “You sanctimonious tie-wearer.” The bit on popper vids—clips from multiple porn videos edited together with a soundtrack and instructions about when exactly to sniff—was also very “through a glass darkly” from my own fannishness.
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This book is right: you never forget your first time.

Despite having access to precisely zero queer culture where I grew up, I did weirdly have access to poppers. Nobody knew it was a gay thing because see above re access to queer culture. Also gay wasn’t so much an identity so much as a word to applied to something bad or wrong. Y’know, like me.

Anyway, one afternoon in the middle of the summer holiday when I was about … I’m going to say 14 … I had idled along to hang out with one of my few friends, a girl I shall call L. I liked L and, surprisingly enough, L liked me—although girls tended to like me more than boys than I was growing up. Such is the traditional queer narrative. Anyway, I will confess that part of my liking for L was for her older brother, A.

He was legitimately tall, dark and handsome. And he had his own car, which I wanted him to whisk me away in.  Not for any sexual purposes. I just very much wanted to leave where I was growing up. Anyway, he was more interested in his younger sister’s friend than—looking back—he probably should have been? But he’s actually a good memory. He’s since come out. Has married. Has his own business. We haven’t spoken since I left, but he seems happy. I’m happy for him. 

Anyway, he had obtained a small brown glass bottle of … something. That people were apparently sniffing because … reasons? So we sniffed it. Two fourteen year olds and a seventeen year old (with a car) in a chintzy conservatory in the north east of England. I remember a rush of well-being—of abstract connectedness—that flashed like wasabi.  Presumably our buttholes relaxed? But nobody mentioned this.

Anyway, being kids, this temporary rush of well-being was not enough. We wanted more. Thankfully nobody thought to drink it, because then we’d be dead. But L and A’s mother (who was very house proud) had recently invested in an essential oil burner.  A very sophisticated piece of making-your-house-smell-nice technology for the northeast of England in the early 90s. I mean, sheesh woman, were you too good for a Glade plugin like anyone else?

Still riding the memory of the pleasurable poppers high, we approached the precious oil burner—which was occupying pride of place on a sideboard—and dumped the entire bottle of poppers into the holder. For a minute or so, nothing happened. Then we lay on the floor, with no memory of actually lying down, half-giggling, half-passing out. Then we had terrible headaches.

Then L and A’s mum came home. 

In a moment of genius resourcefulness, L upended some patchouli oil into the pool of poppers in the oil burner. We got into some trouble for using the cherished oil burner without permission. But from that day forth the oil burner achieved almost mystical significance in the household for its capacity to improve one’s mood. And I keep thinking of L and A’s mother’s visitors, sitting in the best room, sipping tea, with their arseholes unaccountably receptive, gently soothed by unearned queer pleasure. 

I hadn’t thought of that in years; not until I read this book. And it’s a good book for that—ostensibly charting a sort of cultural history of poppers, with a focus on the liminality of queer bodies and queer identity, it creates a space to let you wander through your own private history, your unique experiences of queerness. It’s transitions from personal reflection to historical accounting to attempts to … I guess … re-envision a future in which the pleasure-potential of queer bodies opens up avenues to new experience. I mean, I will be honest, the book kind of lost me at this point, because while I appreciated the fluidity of the style, and the blending of past, present and future, the factual and the subjective—and I’m a big fucking fan of Star Trek—its self-conscious artiness reached a point of incoherence to me.

And I feel bad saying that because I did enjoy this book a lot. And I did very much appreciate what it was doing, or trying to do, because queer history feels so much like a lost thing – and this explores so many aspects of queerness and queer identity: from clubbing to masturbation to the HIV/AIDs crisis to the conception of masculinity to pop culture to Victorian chemists who apparently just went about sniffing shit? 

Seriously there’s a throwaway line near the beginning at the book (which is about the initial discovery of amyl nitrate) that was so fascinating to me I found it actually quite of distracting:

“Not everyone who sniffed [Benjamin Ward] Richardson’s amyl nitrate was a willing research subject. One friend saw a bottle of the stuff on Richardson’s shelf while the scientist was out of the room briefly, and took a whiff. When Richardson returned, the returned was inhaling more and more deeply, and his face and neck had turned the colour of raw beef. Richardson tried to wristle the bottle from him. The man, perhaps the world’s first poppers pig, eventually gave it up, suddenly speechless and needing support from a nearby table.

SERIOUSLY, WHO IS THIS LEGEND? Who is this man who goes to visit his friend, the notable chemist, and just starts … like … randomly picking up bottles from the guy’s shelves and sniffing them? History has lost you, hero. BUT I SHALL REMEMBER THEE.

Anyway, despite occasionally falling victim to its own deliberately anarchic style, this book was such a unique celebration and exploration of queerness, past and future, that I found reading it a genuinely joyous experience.
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Writer and activist Adam Zmith attempts a cultural history of poppers (Amyl Nitrate), particularly in relation to gay male culture, that also connects to a vision of a different future. One that might grow in response to a plea for pleasure opening up a route to fresh, radically different perceptions of queer bodies and their potential. It’s an ambitious project, and a challenging one, that never really comes together. But at the same time, Zmith’s book can be quite compelling, highlighting a number of fascinating, important stories. Zmith’s detailed account of the moral panic around poppers during the 80s, the attempts to link this to AIDs and justify horrific police crackdowns on the queer community’s just one example; as is the surprisingly lyrical discussion around poppers, masturbation and porn. The detailed description of the development of poppers as a product aimed specifically at gay men, the marketing campaigns constructing poppers as a signifier of a particular version/vision of gay masculinity also stood out. Later sections that veer off into ideas about literature, science fiction and identity display promise but stray into the blandly descriptive when a more coherent, analytical stance is desperately needed.

Zmith concludes his idiosyncratic survey of poppers through space and time with Odo, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Odo was a Changeling, a non-solid entity, able to mimic objects or creatures in their surroundings, and merge with others of their kind, possessing an identity poised between singular and plural, resisting fixity. For Zmith Odo points towards an idea of queer utopia, a space free of rigid identity categories. Odo’s also useful as a way of thinking about Zmith’s book. He’s continually shapeshifting, going back and forth between cultural and general histories of poppers, scatterings of memoir, analysis, and manifesto. The impression’s of someone free associating: abrupt segues, unexpected imaginative leaps and tangents. Zmith’s writing style’s similarly fluid, the numerous sudden changes in register can be jarring: highly subjective, passionate polemic tangled up with the more muted and formal. In many ways Zmith’s free-form style mirrors what he’s trying to formulate here. But the result is fragmented, an awkward patchwork of material. Part of the problem's space constraints, Zmith’s messy, sprawl of facts and concepts are confined to less than 180 pages. Zmith’s publisher’s Repeater Books, an innovative, indie outfit tracing back to writer and theorist Mark Fisher. Zmith’s technique sometimes reminded me of Fisher's. Fisher also mixed elements of history, cultural analysis and texts from popular culture but his ideas were firmly grounded in rigorous, theoretical frameworks. Zmith's work lacks Fisher's underlying discipline and theoretical sophistication. Zmith's an interesting, often provocative, writer but he's juggling too many disparate components, ideas spilling out at a fast and furious pace, and the end result’s more than a bit bewildering.

Thanks to Netgalley and Repeater Books for an arc.
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The subject matter is interesting and I appreciate what Zmith is trying to do, but I feel like some of his ideas are underdeveloped. He makes some leaps in time and thought that are confusing; it's a pretty short book, and I wish he'd fleshed out some of those moments.
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Fascinating and unusual read that while only appealing to some isa worthy read for anyone with an interest,packed full of facts and anecdotes I was constantly surprised at what was reading, a great find
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This is a book about poppers, but it’s also about historical and contemporary conceptions of identity, queerness, and pleasure. The writing falters at times, and is strongest when the writer uses his own experiences and identities to tie in to the broader point he is making. I’m excited that someone has written something so thorough and celebratory about this piece of queer culture.
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Thanks to Repeater Books + NetGalley for the e-ARC.

This book combines medical history, social and cultural history and a vision of the future, to help us understand what poppers can teach us. It’s an interesting subject, and one I’m not particularly well versed in, but I loved the first half of this book - the medical and cultural history of how poppers came to be. The chapters on poppers emerging at a similar time to outspoken queerness, changing masculinity, marketing to gay men and poppers during the early HIV/AIDS crisis were all fantastic. 

The second half of the book looks more at queer life now and Zmith’s vision of how the future could be, studied alongside cultural references to Star Trek and Iain Bank’s Culture novels (bit weird to read about my dads favourite books alongside a lot of sexually explicit analysis). Not being super familiar with either, this didn’t interest me as much as the earlier chapters but I liked and agreed with a lot of Zmith’s musings on identity and utopias. 

Also included in this book: Jane Fonda, Poirot, Housmans bookshop, the Combahee River Collective and many other fun shout outs! Pick it up if it sounds like your very niche kind of thing.
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Deep Sniff is an exploration of the history of poppers through the lens of the reality of identity and freedom and possible queer futures, starting with their Victorian discovery and moving into gay culture both face to face and online. The book moves between history, a bit of science, some science fiction, and a manifesto for the future, blending topics to show how intertwined the body, identity, pleasure, sex, politics, and history really are.

This is a multi-faceted book, telling what starts as a history of science and rapidly moves into a history of culture, politics, and sex, whilst also looking at some of the pop culture mentions and depictions of poppers. I found a lot of the history very interesting, told in an engaging way with anecdotes, and I felt like I learned a lot from it. The later part of the book focuses more on the idea of queer futures and imagining futures, looking to sci-fi and previous writing on various utopian dreams, and it had more of a call to imagine new futures than I expected, emphasising the importance of looking forward rather than back (which is quite funny for a book with 'history' in the subtitle). The queer utopia stuff was particularly interesting, though there was a lot about Star Trek and as someone who knows nothing about it, I did get a bit lost at times.

A short and readable exploration of poppers and pleasure, Deep Sniff is a deep dive into not just a particular substance and its cultural impact, but also wider implications and futures. Also, it ends with a playlist of tracks that I'm listening to whilst I'm writing this review, which is fun too, and underscores the way in which histories and futures are all tied to so many things, and looking at the future through the lens of a cultural item (e.g. poppers) can bring with it a lot of different ideas, connotations, and (in this case) music.
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I’ve heard about poppers that I’ve never actually heard the story or information about them.  I found this history to be completely fascinating.  It’s full of interesting antidotes.  I really enjoyed it
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Thank you to NetGalley, Repeater Books, and Adam Zmith for the ARC of Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures. I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Wow, this book was so well researched and so well done. The archival work and storytelling intertwined into this book to illustrate queer past, present, and future through the object of something as simple as poppers was really fascinating and easy to read.

It should also be noted how short this book is, being under 200 pages and yet how the other still packs such a punch in this text, never mincing or wasting a single word. 

I can’t wait to purchase this book when it comes out next month and add it as a necessary text in my queer nonfiction collection. Also look forward to being on the lookout to read more from Zmith’s works as well!
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