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An avant-garde writer recalls his journey from gutter drunk to PEN American member.
Kaufman (Matches, 2005, etc.) throws in his lot with the boozer bards in this second memoir about his near-lethal alcohol addiction, recovery and long struggle to become a writer. After touching briefly on his horrific childhood in the Bronx as the son of a French Jewish Holocaust survivor who beat him mercilessly (the territory of his first memoir, Jew Boy, 2000), Kaufman details his traumatizing years with the Israel Defense Forces and his torrid, adulterous affair (which inspired his novelMatches). Kaufman's blackout drinking is epic throughout and reaches a crescendo when he returns to New York suffering psychotic delusions from PTSD sustained in the Israeli Army. The author's narrative whips schizophrenically between manic moments of literary self-aggrandizing and deeply depressive moments of shocking wreckage ("Awoke in gutters or curled up to keep warm on manhole covers and grates in cul-de-sacs, filthy, nauseous, hungover, astonished at my gargantuan appetite for the abyss"). Acceptance into Columbia's Master of Fine Arts program, his involvement with the emerging Spoken Word poetry scene and the birth of his daughter briefly buoyed him, but not enough to keep him from the bottle. Eventually he hit rock bottom and was kicked out of a crash pad by his acid-dealer roommates, becoming homeless. Kaufman's sexual perversions sometimes serve his theme of bondage, but occasionally veer into misogyny. Literature literally saved the author, on a bench in New York's Tompkins Square Park when a fellow poet talked him into trying recovery, and the second half of the book follows Kaufman's journey to sobriety in San Francisco. The author's intention to stake his territory among the literary elite is clear, but such efforts can feel name-droppy at times (an anecdote about desperately seeking Isaac Bashevis Singer at his Upper West Side apartment is interesting, but a listing of Kaufman's Columbia classmates is not). Although the author's tendency to drop the "I" from his sentence often feels affected, it also occasionally hit its mark, lending a hard edge to Kaufman's largely intoxicating prose.
A slightly bloated but addictive memoir of self-destruction, recuperation and a literary coming-of-age.
I couldn't tear my eyes away.
The covers showed buxom, naked young women—Jewish, I presumed—in shredded slips, their panting and perspiring busts crisscrossed with luscious-looking whip welts, hung by wrists from ceilings, about to be boiled, others spread-eagled on torture tables, dripping red cherry cough drop–colored blood as shirtless bald grinning sadists manned obscene instruments.
Is this what my birth looked like? Had my mother, a French-born Jew, been a virgin torture bride for the pleasures of the medical Gestapo? And is that why she still constantly revisits doctors and goes to the hospital to have surgeries? To my libido, it was logical.
To her, my hungers were disgraceful. "You're hungry? You don't know what hunger is," she told me, mopping her flushed face with her apron, when I requested more bread.
I was too fat, she said. "Look at you! You should be ashamed! you have breasts like a woman. In the war I hid in basements and attics, starving, and all around me German soldiers with dogs. I was just a little older than you. Hungry! What do you know? your waist is bigger than mine!"
But what about the Gestapo rat pits, I wondered, shutting my eyes, trying to imagine her hung over cauldrons, like the ones bubbling on the stove, or chained to a wall, naked and starving, a thin figure with voluptuous breasts, a moan parting her lips. Shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I grew hard under the dinette table. The magazines' cheap black-and-white newsprint guts contained boner-inspiring photo art, grainy flicks of scantily clad women of ill repute, black bars printed over their eyes. You saw pretty clearly their cleavages, could form a mental movie. I knew that sex was bad things one did and I knew the mags were sinful, but reading was the only thing I seemed to excel in at school; I failed most subjects. I read the mags compulsively, desperately, yet with a curious mentholated sense of remove, the coolness of sin, the way others pray, for fantasy, escape from the circumstances of my life, for I did not yet understand about libraries, that you can be only eight years old but based on honor take home books, since there was no honor in my world where I was a groveling larva trying just not to get crushed.
My father played cards and bet on horses. He brought home stolen hi-fi consoles and portable TVs, purchased hot, or hung out with his brother, Arnold, and the kids, who were mainly jailbirds and hoods. And if I could, I stole too—you couldn't trust a kid like me, for now and then I took change from his pockets, filched cupcakes and comics from the candy stores.
When an actual book fell into my hands, street-found, some yellowish crumbling paperback, Ted Mack's The Man From O.R.G.Y., or George Orwell's 1984, I handled these with proprietary reverence, inscribed the title page with "Property of Alan Kaufman" and a little poem plagiarized from Pop, who had it scrawled in the only two books he kept, a Webster's and this antho of best prose from Nat Fleisher's Ring Magazine:
"I pity the river, I pity the brook, I pity the one who steals this book."
It seemed like great poetry to me. I wondered if he made it up, was some kind of poet. This, the first poem I ever learned, stolen from my dad, made me want to write others.
I tried. When I showed my efforts to my teacher, she put across the top: "Excellent! you're a real writer!" Even my mother encouraged this idea, and kept my poems stashed in her secret drawer of precious things, folded away among silken panties and bras—my very first archive.
My poems, writing and reading, became erotically tinged, a way to earn love as I couldn't by other means. Writing seemed to befriend me. I felt less lonely, began to dream, and from the page a voice seemed to speak directly to me and to no one else.
Be a writer, it told me.
When I learned that even I could join the library and check out books six at a time, my mother said I would run up fines she couldn't pay, don't I know how poor we are, but I went anyway, returning home with arms full of new sentries to post around my bed. A kind of literary fortress stood guard over my hopes: Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Leon Uris, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Irwin Shaw, a new bulwark against my mother, who entered my room raging and lashing at me with a belt for my defiance as I cringed in the corner crying and glanced at the books for courage. Could sense Hemingway and Dylan Thomas there in the room, encouraging. Alone, vowed someday to join them. At night, with a flashlight under my blanket tent, I mouthed artful words I barely understood, until, now and then, narratives took form, more real than my reality, and obliterated the grimness of the day and loneliness of my night.
Excerpted from drunken angel by ALAN KAUFMAN Copyright © 2011 by Alan Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of VIVA EDITIONS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 12, 2013
This story is excellent! Alan Kaufman is a great writer and such an inspiration! I was so engrossed in his tale the whole time. Definitely recommend it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 12, 2011
Book was amazing. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical of picking up another recovery related biography, but I was thoroughly surprised. Kaufman has a gift and it shines through in this book. Its an amazing story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.