Judging a Book by Its Recovery

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath BY Leslie Jamison. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 544 pages. $30.

The cover of The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

When I was in a suicidal phase in my life and hiding my alcoholism from my partner, I was also working on a book about love and deception. My editor at the time, with whom I had no doubt too intimate a friendship—he once sternly but correctly told me, “Clancy, I can’t be both your editor and your psychiatrist”—recommended two books to me: William Styron’s Darkness Visible, one of the best-known studies of alcoholism and the depression that often follows on the heels of new sobriety, and Al Alvarez’s The Savage God, the classic work on suicide among and as understood by writers. These are two terrific books that everyone, perhaps at an appropriately psychologically sturdy time, should read. But you can guess what happened next with me: Within a month or so, I was in a psychiatric hospital, recovering from a suicide attempt, and getting sober.

Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: My suicide attempt (obviously) failed, and despite the fact that I had tried to quit drinking many times before, this was the first time it really stuck: I didn’t take a drink for more than a year, until I fell in love with another woman, and suddenly we were drinking together.

For drinkers—and, as we learn from Leslie Jamison’s masterful The Recovering, especially for drinkers who are also writers—mine is a familiar story. Drinking, quitting drinking, lying, falling in love, trying to kill oneself, starting drinking again . . . this way of living can become almost ordinary. The Recovering is in its way a successful synthesis of Styron’s and Alvarez’s masterpieces. It is an intimate chronicle of Jamison’s own battle with alcoholism and the mental crisis that accompanies her attempts to quit drinking. It is also an exhaustive look at the self-destructive struggles of other writers and artists—including Charles Jackson, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, John Berryman, and so many more—and how those stories too often end in one or another form of suicide.

Jamison’s greatest strength is her ability to show honestly the outrageous mental gymnastics every alcoholic masters in the attempt simultaneously to quit drinking and, above all, to continue drinking. The alcoholic does not like booze, Jamison reminds us. She loves booze, and love and booze become intertwined for her, and this too Jamison illustrates so well: love and booze, love despite booze, loving someone who doesn’t need to drink the way you do, loving someone because that person will let you drink as much as you want. The Recovering is a good old-fashioned love story, a love triangle between Jamison, the bottle, and a very kind and patient man named Dave. She tells the story of why she has to give up the first love, and you can probably guess what happens to the second. Speaking as an alcoholic writer, who is married to an alcoholic writer, I think everyone who loves an alcoholic writer should read this book—though I can’t promise you’ll be comforted by it. The book is also essential reading for alcoholics, with one caveat: Jamison’s descriptions of drinking are so well turned and evocative that those who have just quit drinking, who haven’t found their footing as nondrinkers yet, might find them triggering. But this too is a compliment.

Let me say a few other things in praise of Jamison’s book. Though, for good autobiographical reasons, Jamison is particularly focused on writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which she also attended, it is nevertheless the most comprehensive study of the relationship between writing and alcohol that I have read, or know about. She is an excellent researcher of her subject. Plus she’s a natural storyteller, and her inside looks at the worst moments in the lives of alcoholic writers and other artist-addicts are spellbinding. We learn about how the people who loved Jean Rhys always put too many ice cubes in her glass so that it might look like she had more whiskey, and that Marguerite Duras once said to a young man that, yes, she had just been released from the hospital for her drinking, and that she had no idea why she drank. We hear about Billie Holiday’s final days, forty-four years old, dying handcuffed to a hospital bed.

Elegantly braided into these biographical studies is Jamison’s own story, written with complete, often embarrassing candor—the mark of a real writer. The prose is clean and clear and a pleasure to read, utterly without pretension. Although the subject is dark, Jamison has managed to write an often very funny page-turner. And unlike some writers who are fundamentally AA folks (and yes, deep down Jamison is a twelve-stepper, what we in AA sometimes call “a thumper,” for their adulation of Bill W.’s Big Book), she has real love in her heart for addicts. She is not one of those recovered alcoholic writers who now look back with carefully concealed disdain on everyone who is still struggling. And that sincere compassion for the suffering addict comes through on every page, and is one of the many virtues of her book.

In short, The Recovering is terrific, and if you’re interested in the relationship between artists and addiction, you must read it.

I could end this review here. But I do have some philosophical disagreements with Jamison. The moral of Jamison’s story is that writers who recover, who get “sober”—like Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and David Foster Wallace—find their artistic greatness in sobriety. Certainly, that is what Johnson believed. He came to speak to a class of mine once, in Georgetown, Texas—he was a visiting writer at the Michener Center at the time, and I was a drunk wannabe writer adjuncting at Southwestern University—and after speaking to my class about Jesus’ Son for almost three hours (no charge) he asked me, while I walked him to his car, why I liked his book. I said something about how much life there was in the narrator. He paused outside his car, looked at me—I remember his socks in his sandals—and said, very straight, very tough (he must’ve known I’d been drinking all day): “You didn’t get it.”

Unlike me, Jamison gets it. She now sees (or tries to see) the aesthetic with moralizing eyes:

In class, I started our discussion of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son by asking my students if they had a favorite story from the collection. “Don’t worry,” I said. “There’s no right answer.” But I was lying. There was a right answer. Their favorite story was supposed to be my favorite story, which was now “Beverly Home,” the only one about recovery.

There is an anxiety that runs through Jamison’s book that inspiration, that real spiritual intimacy with whatever it is that helps a writer say something that others have been unable or afraid to say, is entangled with the drama and euphoria and misery of intoxication. She knows very well that for some of the famously once-drunk-then-sober-now-drunk-again authors she discusses, like Charles Jackson, of Lost Weekend fame, drying out as a drunk also meant drying up as a writer. And like any good memoirist, Jamison is up-front about this anxiety, particularly as it pertains to herself: What if she loses her voice when she puts down the bottle? This is understandable. She is, after all, a writer who wanted, needed, to stop drinking, and she wants to remain a writer in sobriety. But this leads Jamison to view the stories of alcoholic writers in terms of how much hope they give her as a sober artist. She cheers for writers like Carver and Johnson, who found their creativity in sobriety. Meanwhile, she looks for opportunities to dismiss the idea that drinking and art might be somehow linked. Early in the book, she is relieved to discover the critic Lewis Hyde’s anger with people who glorify John Berryman’s drinking, who see “the drunken poet as icon. . . . When I first read Hyde on Berryman, a few years into my own sobriety, I whispered a secret ‘Amen.’”

I applaud Jamison for not romanticizing drunks, for her frankness about the destruction that alcohol and drugs can wreak on a great artist:

Near the end of his drinking, Carver hadn’t been anything like the rogue I’d once imagined. He was bloated and overweight. He lived like a hermit, and often called his students to cancel class because he was too sick to teach. When he invited three of them to dinner one night, they ate Hamburger Helper and shared a single fork. . . . This wasn’t reckless debauchery or existential knowledge plucked from the dark maw of some universal psychic void; this was just a human body pushed to the edge of its own poisoning.

But why not admit that booze has helped some writers find their best lines? Not because they wrote best drunk—even Rhys, who could write beautifully while snockered, knew that she did her best writing between bouts of drunkenness—but because the trauma of addiction might keep some nerves sensitive that otherwise become dull. Because many of us remember that ferocious artistic clarity that only comes in the depths of a terrible hangover. Or for a thousand different chemical, spiritual, psychological reasons. Studs Terkel describes it when he writes about the last days of Holiday, when he saw her in a club in Chicago: “Other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses,” but in Holiday’s case, despite the physical wreck she had become, “Something was still there, something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be.”

Isa Genzken, X-Ray, 1991, gelatin silver print, 39 3/8 × 31 1/2".
Isa Genzken, X-Ray, 1991, gelatin silver print, 39 3/8 × 31 1/2".

It’s true that some writers, like Johnson and Wallace, clean up and produce their best work. Others are not so lucky. Jamison acknowledges this in her portraits of Jackson and Berryman, both of whom battled the bottle and lost their voices in the fight. But every time Jamison approaches this most dangerous and interesting aspect of her subject, she quickly reassures herself and the rest of us: It’s always better to be clean. At the end of her book, she writes of the sober Carver: “Sobriety means staring at the vast Pacific and eating buttery popcorn.” And, yes, Carver’s discovery of his greatness in recovery is a consoling story. But it’s only one story. And it’s not the only story.

If there is one book that rises above all others in The Recovering, it is Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest, with its depictions of the modest heroism of the recovering addict. I loved Jamison’s smart insights and frank reverence for Infinite Jest—her discussion of it is one of the most comforting pieces of criticism on Wallace I have read. But let’s be honest: Wallace’s story does not have a happy ending. He was, we know, wrestling with more demons than just addiction, but this returns me to a point that I think Jamison is not as forthright about as she might be: Sobriety does not always lead to triumph, in art or in life. At the end of the day, she characterizes Carver, Johnson, and Wallace a bit too naively: They are heroes because they used the twelve steps to get clean, and yet even while clean, they remained—or became!—magnificent writers. To my mind, this is a very dangerous kind of idolatry. Whether you’re idolizing booze or you’re idolizing booze-free, you’re still idolizing, and I think that focusing so much on whether these writers were sober or drunk keeps Jamison from offering a complex portrait of their actual struggles. She focuses on the results, not on the whole life. As with Jesus’ Son, she is drawn to the last story, when she could be thinking about the entire collection.

And we should wonder about the very notion of “sobriety”—a notion that is not sufficiently interrogated in Jamison’s book, but really taken for granted. Witness: “I would have loved to hear Amy Winehouse sing sober. Not just two weeks sober, but three years sober, twenty years sober.” I worry that this observation is as much about Jamison and her own anxiety (with which I sympathize) as it is about Amy Winehouse. What if the sober Amy wasn’t all that good three years sober, twenty years sober? Would she be less in Jamison’s eyes?

If Wallace is the Sisyphus of this book, condemned heroically to push the rock of the addict up the hill while writing his great literature on the walk back down, then Berryman is its Tantalus, who simply cannot give up the ambrosia of the gods. We learn so many melancholy, sympathetic facts about Berryman in The Recovering: about his failed novel, Recovery, about his letters with his estranged son, about the final notes he jotted down before jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge at the University of Minnesota. And Jamison’s study of Berryman is every bit as good and as insightful and warmhearted as her study of Wallace. But she also reveres Wallace, and pities Berryman. She seems to insist on the question: Who would you rather be? The sober Wallace with his friends and his message of hope? Or the relapsing Berryman, writing plaintive letters to his son, and scribbling desperately, “Terrible continual thoughts of suicide—cowardly, cruel, wicked—beating them off. Don’t believe gun or knife; won’t”?

And of course the only reasonable answer is, well, neither: Each died in despair at his own hand. But the other reasonable answer is, well, both: They were two of the greatest literary geniuses of the twentieth century. And this is my point. When it comes to these rare artistic minds—even when it comes to the rest of us ordinary mortals—it’s too simplistic to think in the categories of either Wallace or Berryman, either Rhys or Johnson. The artist-addict—hell, every addict, and probably every human being—is neither noble sober hero nor selfish wretched villain. Sober or drunk, she’s just doing the best she can, and none of us really know how to sort through her suffering. That’s her business. Now, whether we are going to be involved with that person, work with that person, be friends with that person, love that person—sure, that’s our business.

To be fair to Jamison, she wisely insists, at the end of her book, that new approaches to addiction through psychiatric medications and harm reduction, rather than simple twelve-stepping, are the future of recovery. One of my favorite parts of the book is in the author’s note at the end, when Jamison writes: “When we resist the tyranny of abstinence—the notion that abstinence has a monopoly on meaningful healing—we allow ourselves to recognize that there are still lives that can be saved, still sick people who can be brought to better health.” This is a good idea in the context of thinking about addiction, and especially addiction and its relationship with psychology and psychiatry: better health, as opposed to worse health. There is no such thing as “perfect health” for human beings, and especially not for us addicts, who have spent years wrestling with our mental sickness and often “drinking and drugging” and making it worse, while learning how to accept the sickness, to work with the sickness, to accept the idea of degrees of health.

In AA, in whose almost always helpful meeting rooms I, like Jamison, have spent many mornings, afternoons, and evenings, we sometimes talk about “the pink cloud.” The pink cloud, as readers may know, is the kind of giddy celebration of sobriety that forgets what is another well-worn AA maxim—the hardest, the scariest, and the best of them all: “Relapse is part of recovery.” I want to believe that Jamison understands this: Her account is beautifully honest about her own struggles with relapse, the old familiar story of “fail, fail again, fail better.” But The Recovering is in the end too focused on sober artistic productivity, and too squeamish about failures to achieve it. Jamison wants triumph, in recovery and as a writer, and she has found her own version of it. In her insistence on heroes, however, she has oversimplified the writers she otherwise reads with such intelligence. It’s too reductive, and probably harmful, to understand writers, artists, or any human beings, as either failure or success, drunk or sober, crazy or sane.

Clancy Martin is a recovering alcoholic, a philosophy professor, and a novelist.