Jungle Juice

Adam Zmith, Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures

Repeater Books, 180pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781913462420

reviewed by Charlie Pullen

Halfway through Alan Hollinghurst’s 1998 novel The Spell, a group of gay Londoners descend on a cottage in rural Dorset for a party. ‘So you’re bussing in a whole crowd of dizzy disco bunnies and letting them loose in the beautiful English countryside,’ one character remarks to the host, whose friends and casual lovers are hooked on the heady pleasures of the capital’s nightlife. ‘They may not be able to breathe the country air’, he warns: ‘You’ll need respirators of poppers and CK One.’

An aroma can permeate a culture and perhaps even become essential to it. CK One, that bestselling unisex fragrance of the mid-1990s, may not be the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of gay culture today, but the rather less fragrant smell that emanates from a bottle of poppers has had a much more enduring and intimate connection with queer life. Still, as Adam Zmith points out early on in Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures: ‘Few people think twice about poppers.’ In this joyous, informative, and marvellously-titled book, Zmith picks up the scent of a drug that has been a popular, sometimes inescapable feature of gay nightlife and sex lives since the latter half of the twentieth century, revealing why they are worthy of our attention.

Poppers (or amyl nitrite, to give them their proper name) are a liquid drug, which come in small bottles with names like ‘RUSH’, ‘POWER HORSE’, and ‘JUNGLE JUICE’. When their punchy and distinctly solvent vapour is sniffed, poppers cause blood to flow more abundantly round the body, resulting in a euphoric high, the relaxation of muscles, and particularly a slackening of the sphincter. Poppers have, therefore, come to be used to aid and amplify the joys of anal sex, especially between men. Their uses are, however, much more diverse. People sniff them for the rush on a night out or, as Zmith tells, when wanking at home on the computer. ‘You might say that poppers fumes became incorporated into the body of the gay community,’ Zmith writes in a telling metaphor that suggests just how pervasive poppers have been; ‘their ubiquity influenced even those who didn’t use them.’ ‘Like medicines, cosmetics, hormones, processed food,’ he goes on, fittingly, ‘poppers penetrated a people.’

That poppers would become so closely associated with queer sex is, as Deep Sniff reveals, somewhat unlikely. The story of poppers begins, surprisingly, in the 19th century, with the discovery of a drug that was first used to treat angina. One early and instrumental figure in this history is Thomas Lauder Brunton, a Scottish doctor who, in Zmith’s words, ‘handed us every poppers rush we feel today.’ In the late 1860s, Brunton pioneered the use of amyl nitrite, which had been documented some twenty years earlier, to relieve heart and chest pain. It was the packaging of the drug in small glass capsules that prompted the nickname ‘poppers’. ‘Amyl nitrite was sold in sealed ampoules, which were crushed to release the vapour inside’, Zmith explains. ‘This action made a “pop.”’

Zmith is clear: ‘There was nothing gay about amyl nitrite in 1867.’ In fact, during their experiments with the drug, ‘Victorian researchers made no mention of sexual arousal or the sudden need to be fucked.’ And yet, through an interesting comparison with Brunton’s contemporary Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, an early German gay rights activist, Zmith argues persuasively that the non-gay Brunton cleared the way for the later queer uses of poppers. Though distinct, Ulrich’s efforts fighting the persecution of queer folk and Brunton’s scientific work combined to make possible ‘a queer future that neither man imagined.’ Both, in their own way, have left a legacy for ‘queer souls’ and our pursuit of pleasure, community and liberation.

‘It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when amyl nitrite became a recreational drug,’ Zmith notes with caution, ‘and especially one used particularly by gay men to allay their inhibitions and intensify their orgasms.’ Despite this, Zmith writes with characteristic cheek and charm, ‘it is safe to say that sphincters became well and truly relaxed in the 1960s.’ By the 1970s, in cities like New York, poppers were the very air that a newly liberated kind of gay man was breathing in as he explored the spaces of an emerging queer scene. Zmith recounts the tales (now almost legendary) of poppers vapour being sprayed onto dancefloors to heighten the thrills of the discotheque. He draws on a rich array of texts, documents, and ephemera to build up a sense of their prevalence, quoting one novel from 1980 which describes a sex club where ‘poppers perfumed the thick, murky air.’ Poppers, in this golden age before the arrival of AIDS and its horrifying consequences, had become part of the atmosphere of gay life.

‘It is surprising that a vapour from a tiny bottle can become a part of a people,’ Zmith observes. And indeed it is one of the key notes of Deep Sniff that poppers contain within them and their unlikely history a utopian potential that is precisely surprising, unpredictable, and experimental. Poppers can be, Zmith argues powerfully, a resource for queer experiments in living, facilitating different kinds of joy, connection, and experiences of the self. Drawing on the work of theorists like Sara Ahmed, Zmith sees in the improbable uses of amyl nitrite by queer folk an instructive case of the ways in which people can take objects and apply them to new purposes, providing hope that things could be different. On this point, it must be said, Zmith’s style combines the romantic with the almost absurdly graphic. ‘A better future’, we read, ‘is like a poppered-up body’s bumhole: open.’

If these pronouncements about the utopian powers of poppers may be, for some, too high-flown, Zmith never allows Deep Sniff to float very far from earth, as he considers directly, and critically, the status of poppers as a commodity, remarking upon ‘the relationship between commerce, regulation, and pleasure’ along the way. Stocked in chemists up until the 1970s, but frowned upon by the authorities for their ‘misuse’, during the AIDS crisis queer pubs were raided by police, donned in gloves, for selling a drug that was, as Zmith says, central to ‘fears connecting gays, their hedonism, disease and death’. It is one of the more curious elements of this story that poppers ended up being sold – legally – in corner shops, and even sex shops, where they can be purchased today as ‘room odourisers’ or boot polish. As part of an open secret or ‘pact’, Zmith says, customers, manufacturers, and the powers that be pretend they are used for something else: ‘They may be the only product that the state allows to be sold on a lie.’

This slim but remarkably wide-ranging book — which somehow manages to reflect on everything from contemporary webcam-based pornography to Star Trek — is full of the pleasure that comes from reading a previously overlooked history, especially of a thing so weirdly everyday but taboo like poppers. One of the book’s chief virtues is Zmith’s honesty and lack of judgement when telling this history. Describing with candour the place of poppers in his own life and development, Zmith is enthusiastic without becoming narrow and prescriptive in his conclusions. Deep Sniff shows that poppers have been put to different uses and that we can, ultimately, make of them what we will, meaning it remains, like that poppered-up bottom, open-ended in the best sense. As Zmith himself says: ‘you came for a history, but I’d rather you leave with a future.’

Charlie Pullen is a PhD researcher with the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.