Eve Tushnet’s wonderful debut novel Amends takes place during the first and only season of a doomed reality television show about alcoholism. The show—also called Amends—follows a group of miserable weirdos through a one-month spell in rehab.
The book is also a brutal satire of both the conservative cultural journalism crowd and the “Everything is a Problem” social justice crowd. What sticks with you, though, are the serious things at work beneath the novel’s snark: The reflections on sin and faith, the elusive nature of redemption, and the terrible price we sometimes pay for wisdom.
It’s also full of vicious one liners: “He had a dilapidated body and a face like the last days of the Raj: jowly, discredited, eager for the defeat … ”; “That skirt is so short I can see your soul.” The “talent” on the show includes an Internet social justice warrior who “spiritually identifies” as a wolf, a homeless Ethiopian woman who aspires to be a saint, and a right-wing journalist who begins the show with the personal motto “Alcoholism is what raises man above the utilitarians.”
His name is J. Malachi McCool (“The J stood for Jaymi”), a young man with monarchist sympathies who “looks like he was dragged backwards through a hedge fund.” He writes cultural commentary for The Anglican Militant and gets his recipes from a reactionary food blog called The Counter Revolutionary. Jaymi’s editor recommends him for Amends after he submits an op-ed about lead paint in children’s toys that ends with a wildly offensive 9/11 analogy.
At first, it appears that he and his fellow cast members have nothing in common except for their sustained commitment to drinking and “waiting for the alcohol to eat up the present and excrete it as the past.” But it turns out that what this group has in common is a great talent for lying, mostly to themselves. Each cast member has built an elaborate origin story that allows them to keep on living in a way they know, but can’t admit, is unsustainable.
The show’s executive producer, Bentley (also a recovering addict), explains why they have this in common: “Addicts are … gooey,” she says, “our morals are very stretchy. We don’t have a clearly-defined self because we’ve crossed so many of the lines which used to define us. … when you cross those lines it’s like you don’t have skin anymore and you’re just oozing all over the place … ”
Jaymi has stretched out his moral definitions to include drinking as a key part of his degenerate writer schtick. He claims it as a form of social commentary, his way of rejecting bourgeois mores, of setting himself apart from a fallen civilization. He sees himself as a mix of Don Draper and Russell Kirk. The vodka is not a habit, it’s an ethos. It stands athwart.
It sounds kind of glamorous, and for quite a while, he’s able to convince his colleagues that it is. “I puked on a guest once at a Heritage Foundation roundtable,” he confesses, “and everybody envied me because they thought I might have anthrax.”
Meanwhile, back at his crumbling apartment, he’s a wreck. Jaymi writes on a desktop computer so decrepit that the only browser it can support is Netscape. He has told himself that this was a “traditionalist affectation, the Washington journalist’s version of agrarianism.” Eventually, he admits, it’s actually because he’s wrecked too many laptops by spilling drinks on them, and he can’t afford or trust himself with a new one. He has the same problem with women.
Tushnet contrasts Jaymi with Sharptooth (née Shayna), who identifies as an “otherkin,” a wolf wrongly born in a human body. She spends her days working as a counselor to other “otherkin,” and her nights howling at the moon. Before she was a wolf, she was an alcoholic and a heroin addict. Identifying as a wolf has “cured” her. When the others mock her for her phantom tail or her occasional barking, she can fall back on the fact that she is sober and they are not as a way to feel superior.
But her narrative comes apart on family day, when her mother visits and the other cast members see that she’s not as put-together a canine as she claims to be. Sharptooth’s mother reveals that her daughter’s professed “counseling job” amounts to talking all day to strangers on Tumblr who think they might be giraffes. Sharptooth counters that, for wolves, “most human workplaces are a hostile environment.”
Jaymi, of course, thinks Sharptooth is ridiculous. But the novel presents them as quite similar: a little too intellectual and a little too good at romanticizing the errant mismanagement of their own lives. But even as Tushnet is ruthless about tearing down their pretentions, she’s compassionate with her protagonists. Like the subject of a Matt Labash profile, Tushnet’s characters start out as two-dimensional parodies of themselves and suddenly become human and sympathetic.
The addicts in Tushnet’s novel who are really in trouble, though, are the ones who have given up trying to justify themselves, and choose to tell the story in which they are not, and cannot ever be, good.
Tushnet’s novel uses alcoholism as a way to talk about human fallibility—about sin and redemption. When the characters reveal their lowest moments, they aren’t really about alcohol, per se: they’re about being weak and selfish, about taking advantage of other people’s weaknesses. They let down the people who love them.
These wildly eccentric characters screw up in very average, common ways. Some people are alcoholics who have a disease that makes them more susceptible to drinking, but all of us are susceptible to sin. We will fail, at some point, to meet our own standards of what it means to be a good person.
Tushnet explores what goes on in the soul after it screws up. How do you get back your self-respect when you’ve violated your own moral boundaries? What do you do when you do the thing you never thought you’d do? Once rehab ends, we follow these characters back into the world and into much more difficult territory, where Tushnet’s characters incur moral debts that they can never pay back. All that they can do is be sorry, and that apology seems so wildly insufficient.
Tushnet explores the way the heart can expand to accommodate that “sorry”—how forgiveness is an activity, not an event. Amends is about the internal aftermath of failure—about finding yourself morally disoriented and abandoned, and groping in the dark until you find your way not quite back, but to something new.