Literary Life on the Rocks
A writer's own ordeal highlights the banal sameness of addiction
By Domenica Ruta
March 5, 2018
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.
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Domenica Ruta is the author of With or Without You: A Memoir.