Intoxication and Its Aftermath By Leslie Jamison
New York, NY; Little, Brown; 2018, 544 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Ariel Gore
Imagine an AA meeting crowded with all the famously drunk living and dead scribes you’ve ever romanticized:
Hunter S Thompson
And on and on . . .
Hello, My Name is Raymond Carver, and I’m an alcoholic. Hi Raymond!
This is the experience of reading The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s sweeping new research-based memoir. Ambitious and scholarly (there are more than 50 pages of notes following the text), The Recovering grapples with that tangled relationship between writers and their drinks. It’s part memoir, part literary biography, and part profile of the enduring power and somehow transcendent properties of “the program.”
The book begins with Jamison’s own decent into alcoholism. At 21, after graduating from Harvard, an insecure Jamison (with a heart condition and a penchant for cutting) moves to Iowa City to attend the famed writers workshop. “In Iowa,” she writes, “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones. I love-groped my way through the future canon. I was drawn to the same unhinged sparks of luminous chaos that had animated the old legends. I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather, volatile and authentic.”
“Iowa” culture, we learn, is intergenerational and alcohol-fueled—there is the fiction bar (a double-wide trailer), not to be confused with the poetry bar (neon Schlitz sign) and many, many pot-lucks with whiskey and wine. The promise of drugs and alcohol for the writer is that inebriation will put us in touch with the truth—even bleak truths—and keep us enthralled enough to write significant prose. Writers drink, at least in part, with the idea that drinking is going to help our work: We’ll be able to go deeper, write faster, stay up later, and maybe—that last shot promises— reach some kind of mystical breakthrough. (The cultural connection between drinking and writing is so deeply ingrained that the alt country band Freakwater felt it necessary to issue a public service announcement in the mid 1990s: “Everyone who gets drunk,” they twanged, “will not write a good book.”) After five years, it becomes clear even to Jamison that drinking-until-sheblacks- out-every-night-even-when-it-clashes-withher- heart-medication isn’t exactly sustainable—and might not even yield her a good book. At this point, Jamison turns, like millions before her, to Alcoholics Anonymous.
And so it is that the tension of the narrative comes to includes the narrative itself: “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” she writes. While the scope of The Recovering is broad—and ambitious—enough to include all kinds of experiences with addiction, the book focuses on the connection between “whisky and ink”—on the subset of alcoholics whose drinking has been wrapped up in some way with their creativity, so that the terror of sobriety includes the fear that they’ll never work again. In some ways, that tension becomes the thread of suspense, too. We know going into The Recovering that Jamison has survived, and that, at 35, she must be secure enough in her sobriety to tempt the fates with a 544-page tome about it, but ... Will it be any good?
Evidence of this very anxiety riddles the literary landscape, as Jamison makes clear with deep profiles on various famous and obscure writers. For example, when Stephen King wrote The Shining, he was drinking beer and snorting coke like a fiend. It was, Jamison points out, “a nightmare written by an addict terrified of sobriety.” “I was afraid,” King acknowledged years later, “that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging.” Denis Johnson, another drunk writer Jamison brings into her AA-meeting-of-a-book, remarks it is “typical of people who feel artistic” to dread sobriety.
The picture Jamison paints of herself at her most addicted is less evocative of the romantic, truthfacing scribe capturing unhinged sparks of luminous chaos than it is, well, a portrait of someone clearly gifted, but kind of self-absorbed and irritating. During a particularly drunken summer in Bolivia, Jamison’s then-boyfriend comes to visit her. She unceremoniously dumps him in a humid motel in a small Amazonian village. When he gets back home, he writes to say he got sick on the way. She responds with an email “that spent about three sentences saying, I hope you are okay. Drink water. I am imagining your fever, and about twenty-three sentences saying, I really think I have a botfly maggot living in me.”
Maybe she didn’t have so much to lose, either. But the creative results weren’t instantly inspiring. Midbook, Jamison laments, “Sobriety was shaping up to hold precisely the blankness I’d feared it would.” Not a nightmare so much as a bore. And this dullness, this common feeling, was her nightmare.
As an aspiring author, Jamison had been taught uniqueness that made her stories interesting. “Cliché” is not a word any writer wants to see scrawled in the margins of her prose, thus AA is a sort of hell for the editor or writer. It’s full of clichés:
“Every recovery begins with one sober hour.”
“Let go and let God.”
“My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking.”
“You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
“Have an attitude of gratitude.”
It’s enough to make your head explode—or send you running straight from the metal folding chair of the church basement to the cracked barstool in the brick-walled tavern at the end of the alley. “The insistence on simplicity seemed like part of AA’s larger insistence that we were all the same,” Jamison writes, “which was basically a way of saying fuck you to my entire value system.” It’s almost unbearable to sit through those clichés and those endless stories, but (amazingly) you can bear it and, eventually, it works. In recovery, Jamison slowly learns the value of the “we.” Because unlike literary theory, part of recovery theory rests in helping us see that we’re just like everybody else.
The Recovering is impressively and deeply reported. It’s expansive. If you start reading on the first day of your sobriety, you’ll likely be through the hard part when you reach the end. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise when, towards the end of the book, Jamison mentions that “creativity and sobriety” are the topic of her doctorate research. She submitted her Yale dissertation, “The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature” in May of 2016. Given her capacity for rigor, I was surprised at how little of the narrative focused on gender, but Jamison’s portrait of the writer Jean Rhys—drunk even when her infant son died in the hospital—does remind us that our romantic cultural image of the soused writer is indeed gendered. Jamison writes, “If the mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon— the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth—his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care.”
Jamison’s analysis of race and socio-economic standing goes deeper. As an intellectual-class white female, Jamison can see that the culture treats her as a victim while women of color and poor women— and men of color and poor men—are feared, demonized, and brutally punished. But when she writes about a woman named Marcia Powell who, as “prisoner 109416,” was literally cooked alive in a cage in the desert where she had been sent for a minor disciplinary infraction, the implied empathy and solidarity doesn’t quite land. Marcia Powell had been originally sent to jail for solicitation— prostitution that had been supporting her meth addiction. Powell died in 2009, the same year Jamison got sober for the first time. Jamison writes,
While she was in a cage in the middle of the desert, I was getting welcomed into church basements, handed poker chips, bombarded with phone numbers … in the world where Marcia Powell died in the desert, where Melanie Green faced a grand jury for being a pregnant addict, where Jennifer Johnson was initially convicted of delivering a controlled substance to her own child, where George Cain got a gun pulled on him in a doctor’s office, where Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed—in this world, the story of my drinking is not a private story.... My story included a woman who died in a cage in the desert, or her story included me, and not just because of my guilt—the guilt of my privilege, or my survival—but because we both put things in our bodies to change how we felt.
It’s easy to forget that Prisoner 109416 and I are part of the same story, because we have been granted the right to tell very different tales about our pain.
She is more successful in her gorgeous recovering of many of those fabled blitzed scribes who’ve spent time in Iowa City. In her hands, Raymond Carver becomes one higher power that redeems the cliché of the drunken writer, for Jamison and, by extension, for the reader. She reveals that after that most famous denizen of the Iowa Writers Workshop world got sober, Carver viewed his own writing as something that happened despite—not because of—the chaos of his addiction. Her stories of another star of Iowa, Denis Johnson—she calls Jesus Son “our bible of beauty and damage”—also points to the inevitability of alcoholism and recovery. “It seems there are two kinds of American writers,” a young fan wrote to the author Denis Johnson in 1996, “Those who drink, and those who used to.” In this book, though, we learn that Johnson had only written a couple of stories and a handful of poems in his decade-long bender; Jesus Son itself was written after he stopped drinking.
Jamison has looked at being an author from both sides now. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, written before she got sober for good, tells the story of a young New Yorker who goes looking for an estranged aunt and finds the woman drinking herself to death in a trailer in Nevada. The Gin Closet was well reviewed, but it was her second book, The Empathy Exams, essays largely written after her sobriety, that established Jamison as a rising literary star. Her special brilliance wasn’t linked to the alchemical transformations of booze.
As for fearing repetition and clichés, in recovery Jamison ultimately posits that, “our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.” This “we,” after all, unplugs us from the narcissism and the self-loathing of being a drunk— as well as that of being a writer. Throughout all of the scenes in Iowa, we see writers who thought that they were connecting when they drank, but it was in waking up from their delusions of grandeur and failure that they recognize a true “we.”
Herein lies the brilliance of The Recovering: By braiding multiple experiences and teasing out the differences between them as well as allowing for the chorus of their similarities, Jamison creates, astonishingly, a story we really haven’t heard before. One in which we come to understand that our stories are valuable both because we’re unique, and because we’re just like everybody else.
Ariel Gore is the author of ten books including, most recently, We Were Witches.