Alcohol is the lubricant of social interaction: We rub against each other like rough-cut gears, the burred ratchets of unpolished clockwork, and without a little oil to ease our way, we'd grind one another down to raw metal.
Then, too, alcohol is a flavoring—something splashed on life to add a little zest. A dollop of wine deglazes the caramelized drippings and draws out the essences. A measure of beer enlivens a batter. A jigger of brandy warms a dessert. And why not? Liquor makes the banter seem wittier, the company more charming, the party more exciting.
For that matter, alcohol is an emotional regulator: a mood restorative, an attitude adjustor. A martini can pick you. A Manhattan can calm you down. A beer can steady your nerves. A shot of rye can drown your sorrows. The taste of absinthe lets us imagine the experience of decadent French poets. The swirl of bourbon, the slight viscosity as it clings to the glass, gives us clues to the thought of highflying American novelists.
Of course, along the way, alcohol eats our brain cells and claws at our liver till it's a scarred and fibrous lump of tissue. The belly gains the hard swell of ascites. The thin veins in the esophagus start to leak. The hands begin to tremble. The memory begins to fade.
Drunks may imagine their friendships as rich and interesting, filled with drama. But to the nondrinking observer, the alcoholic's human relationships look merely impoverished and unpleasant. The result is the opposite of unique and dramatic. Just predictably sloppy and expectedly dull: an amateur production of Hedda Gabler on a rainy Wednesday evening in Sioux City, Iowa. Drinking may be fun, but drunkenness is a race between the boring and the disgusting, with death closing in fast on the frontrunners.
The dullness is what Leslie Jamison tries to address in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, her new book about her alcoholism, and it proves a long, tedious journey up from the bottom of a bottle.
Jamison started out with gifts worth envying. The daughter of wealthy academics, she grew up in a ritzy neighborhood in Los Angeles—and she would go on to collect credentials like girl-scout badges of contemporary American meritocracy: an undergraduate degree from Harvard, followed by an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, followed by a Ph.D. in literature from Yale (where she wrote a dissertation on writers and alcohol that she mines for large portions of The Recovering).
Along the way there were trips to Italy, visits to Latin America, and the kind of fellowships and opportunities American academia grants to those for whom it predicts future success. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, appeared in 2010, when she was 27, and four years later a collection of her essays, The Empathy Exams, made the New York Times bestseller list. Now a professor at Columbia, she directs the nonfiction program at the School of the Arts.
To her credit, Jamison fights hard to prevent The Recovering from descending into yet another tale of abuse and victimhood, the pattern of nearly every memoir published these days. So, for example, she relates the story of unwanted sex in Nicaragua. "I was giving him certain signals of consent," she notes, "but consent when you're drunk means something I still don't have a good language for. It was as if I'd already made myself available as someone without pride, and it would have been hypocritical to become someone different." She refuses to use the title of rape for something that happened "because I was drunk and because he didn't stop."
So too, she admits, her childhood "was easier than most, and I ended up drinking anyway." But the narrative of the victim is difficult for a contemporary writer to avoid entirely. Though Jamison doesn't seek too deeply in the past for the causes of her later behavior, she does relate how she began cutting herself while a teenager, fasting herself into anorexia while an undergraduate, and obnubilating herself with booze as a graduate student.
It was all supposed to make her interesting, she explains that she thought at the time. Dull people lead sober lives, lacking interesting flavors and moods. Even more to the point, she wanted to be an artist, and alcohol, she believed, fuels creativity and insight. Just look at Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, dozens of other authors. Where would they be without the booze? What would they have written without the bottle? As a drunk, Malcolm Lowry wrote Under the Volcano (1947), a near classic of a drinking novel. When he tried to follow up his success with a tale of recovered sobriety, he could produce only an unpublished manuscript. Jamison hunts it down and finds it so boring that, she says, she began cheering for the main character to start drinking again.
As far as her own attempts at being interesting go, Jamison developed an altogether ordinary inebriation that overdramatized everything. She seems to have been a mean drunk, even now describing cheating on her boyfriend as "explicable and unextraordinary." She wanted to drink life to the dregs, and the dregs are what she got, somehow imagining them the profound stuff of existence. And the suffering she felt—like the suffering she caused—seemed to her the very essence of reality.
In other words, she was sure she was a deep and complicated person because pain surrounded her. In the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, Kirsten tries to explain her drinking by saying that, without alcohol, she "can't get over how dirty everything looks." The world seemed brighter and more interesting when she was drunk. For Leslie Jamison, however, it wasn't an improvement of the world she sought. It was she herself that she saw as brighter and more interesting.
In one of the best sections of The Recovering, Jamison takes up Charles R. Jackson's 1944 novel, The Lost Weekend. She notes Jackson's drunkenness, his attempts at sobriety, and the relapse that led to his suicide. A contrast develops with such writers as Jean Rhys, as Jamison argues that "the mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon—the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth," but "his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care." Even so, she rightly notes that The Lost Weekend is a neglected book we need to bring back into popular notice, for it is the first—and still possibly the best—novel that shows drinking realistically. Neither a mark of the demon rum nor a regular dosing with magical elixir for the artistic and the interesting, alcoholism in Jackson's novel is revealed as the boring, predictable, and mean-spirited thing it is.
Perhaps Jamison is drawn to The Lost Weekend because she wanted to attempt in The Recovering an account of returning to sobriety that didn't have the shape of a Come-to-Jesus salvation story. While her notes about attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are wry and sharply observed, she is still involved in the self-dramatizing that she had while drinking. The Recovering is a little tedious. Part of the reason is that, at 544 pages, the book is a quarter too long, and part of the reason is that the seams show where she pasted in thoughts from her doctoral dissertation. But mostly The Recovering drags because drunkenness drags. The specific drunken incidents Jamison relates are predictable outcomes of her drinking, and the specific sober incidents she tells us are predictable outcomes of her not drinking. Both will bear some of the weight she tries to place on them, but not all of it.
Still, The Recovering serves as a useful reminder. Drinking is exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic. Drunkenness is merely dull—a dullness that rots the liver. Rots the brain. Rots the soul.