Book Reviews - Spring 2018

Literary Life on the Rocks

A writer's own ordeal highlights the banal sameness of addiction

By Domenica Ruta | March 5, 2018
Dominick Guzzo/ Flickr
Dominick Guzzo/ Flickr

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison; Little, Brown, 544 pp., $30

The archetype of the addict looms large in the American mythos, constellated by paradoxical tales of genius and madness, tragedy and lechery. Who among us doesn’t know someone touched by addiction? Participating in the life of an addict, whether intimately in one’s family or in the realm of literature, invariably brings with it wild vicissitudes of rage, love, thrill, and tedium. It is an affliction, some believe a disease, composed of contradictions, which Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams (2014), asks us to behold with more flexibility in her new book, The Recovering. The myth of the addict is one of conflicting narratives, and the way in which stories are told by and about addicts helps shape the larger cultural conversation. Affecting astronauts and janitors alike, addiction is a thoroughly democratic compulsion, yet Jamison devotes a large portion of her book to addiction’s brightest literary stars—authors like Raymond Carver, John Berryman, Denis Johnson, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace, who are as famous for their alcoholism as for their work. We learn that Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, lived in a one-way rivalry with Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, to produce the ultimate portrait of the alcoholic. And Jamison, through no fault of her own, reveals that, in addiction as in the rest of life, women and people of color suffer perennial double-binds, with writers like Jean Rhys and George Cain relegated to a separate sphere of judgment, degradation, and obscurity even within the pantheon of drunken artists. Amid these deftly dramatized case studies, Jamison weaves her own story of recovery from alcoholism and illuminates the lives of many other non-celebrity addicts in no less vivid exegesis, attempting (with varying degrees of success) to encompass the diversity of addiction narratives while making a larger point about their repetition. A combination of memoir, history, journalism, and literary and cultural criticism, The Recovering asks what we talk about when we talk about addiction, and whether that conversation might be revised.

Much of what made Jamison’s previous book of essays a soaring best seller finds even fuller expression here. She leaps with remarkable grace from the personal to the public and back again, circling herself and her subjects with a clarity of vision that lends the multitude of narratives in this book a cinematic impact. In her study of the life and work of Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea emerges as the tragic hero of her own story, beset by equal parts self-pity and cruel heartbreak—a story that Jamison teases out with a novella’s scope and depth. The publication history of Carver’s short masterpiece “A Small, Good Thing” becomes a triumphant parable of recovery. Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had famously cut the story’s most memorable scene, a communion between grieving parents and a cake baker, to deliver instead a final message of bleak irony. Years later, with Carver newly sober, reprinted editions restored the original scene—along with the story’s tiny instance of grace. Most compelling of all is Jamison’s rendering of John Berryman’s career, unearthing the poet’s unfinished novel about recovery from alcoholism. Her work on Berryman is so finely wrought that it is worthy of its own book. In Jamison’s hands, these and other episodes of alcoholic literary criticism, expertly paced and richly detailed, become works of art in themselves.

The precision of Jamison’s prose is breathtaking. She describes Carver’s stories as “painful and precise, like carefully bitten fingernails.” In writing about her own life and work, she proves again to be a virtuoso of introspection. Even her messiest emotional crises are corseted in lovely sentences. Her early attempts to quit drinking, she writes, were “like tossing a stone down a well and never hearing it hit bottom.” But for all of her accomplishment, her life is an exquisitely observed banality. It is always winter, and she is always on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend as she moves from Harvard to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to Yale, with a few study abroad trips in between. As gorgeously crafted as these moments are, as careful as Jamison is to shine a light on her own privilege and solipsism, her critique fails to annul the overindulgence.

It also belies an ambivalence at the core of The Recovering: as Jamison seeks to debunk the “corrosive and misguided” mythology of the (male, white) genius-as-drunk, she continually inserts her life into this barroom canon as though trying to carve her initials into the MFA workshop table. Jamison insists, wisely, that the repetition of the addiction narrative offers the greatest redemptive power, that by recognition of sameness the isolated addict finds connection with others’ stories and the hope of recovery. But her attempt to draw a link between her own story and that of an incarcerated woman who dies of heat exposure in an Arizona prison diminishes the powerful, compelling thrust of this book’s symphonic composition.

The Recovering’s own contradictions are its final point. The life of the addict is a life in extreme, full of wild selfishness and profound altruism, harrowing drama and boring redundancies. Jamison is a genuine talent, offering her readers the uncommon pairing of critical mind with uncritical heart. The stories she’s assembled here, both her own and those of other addicts, are given as a gift—beautifully, imperfectly, generously. In a country plagued by an epidemic, where accidental deaths from drugs surpass those from car accidents and gun fatalities, Jamison’s book joins a chorus of survivors offering a vision of hope.

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