I once attended a screening of The Lost Weekend, the film version of Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel about an alcoholic, where the audience fell captive to a college campus projectionist. Around two-thirds of the way through, it became clear that something was off with the movie — the protagonist was about to take a stumble, but didn’t he fall down a stairwell a few minutes ago? The film stopped, the house lights came on, and the projectionist apologized for mixing up the reels. We all carried on like it didn’t matter, because it didn’t: Until the film’s pat, upbeat redemption arc at the very end, the film was all drunken despair anyway.
In her superb new book on alcoholism, The Recovering, Leslie Jamison deliberately shuffles the reels of the familiar recovery narrative, even while acknowledging the futility of doing so. An alcoholic in recovery herself, she opens her story announcing that she’s “wary of the tedious architecture and tawdry self-congratulation of a redemption story.” Every good writer instinctually wants to explode clichés and familiar tropes, and there’s much about The Recovering that’s inventive: its careful braiding of memoir and literary criticism, its close observation of addiction and creativity, its comprehensive grasp of the way alcoholism provokes scapegoating, solipsism, fear, shame, and solitude. And yet the redemption story won’t be blown up, behaving as if it were encased in twenty feet of concrete. Familiar as it may be, the redemption story is what helps save her. There may be nothing new to say about the AA meeting in the church basement — indeed, its central virtue is its familiarity. But the power of the book is in Jamison’s openness about how conflicted the redemption story makes her anyway, enchanted and skeptical and back again.
The struggle is worth pursuing, because while there may be one redemption story, it’s one that shifts often at its margins. The day after the second time she went sober, Jamison crashes a friend’s car. “If I was going to stop drinking, I was supposed to discover a spectacular new version of myself, or at least recover the presence of mind not to accelerate into a concrete wall,” she writes. “But sobriety didn’t work like that. It works like this: You go to work. You call your friend. You say, I’m sorry I crashed your car into a wall. You say you’ll fix it. Then you do.” Those sentences are among the simplest in the book, and the simplicity is hard fought for, because she’s invested in the notion that words and stories are relevant to recovery. Interpolated into her own story are the stories of other artists who struggled with drinking, and how it shaped their art. In poet John Berryman she sees “the sweet boozy whiff of tangle and rupture.” In Jean Rhys she sees a writer who wasn’t allowed to see herself “as a rogue genius, like the drunk male writers of her generation. She was always forced to understand herself as a failed mother instead.” Even a rather straightforward work like The Lost Weekend offers something telling in what it doesn’t do: Jackson “refused the idea of drinking as metaphysical portal. In the novel, alcoholism isn’t particularly meaningful, it just is.”
And so on, including David Foster Wallace, George Cain, Malcolm Lowry, and Raymond Carver. Jamison seeks a common thread between these writers, their drinking, their recovery, and their creativity. (The book began as a dissertation on the topic.) But such threads prove elusive. A sober Charles Jackson wrote an unpublished second novel of impenetrable doggerel. Carver’s literary career had an infamously redemptive second act after he quit drinking, but he also used cocaine during his “sober” years. So what kind of sobriety are we thinking of, exactly? “My dissertation was reckoning with a question I hoped might bridge these worlds, examining authors who’d tried to get sober and exploring how recovery had become part of their creative lives,” she writes. “It wasn’t criticism as autobiography, exactly, so much as speculative autobiography — trying to find a map for what my own sober creativity might look like.” Ultimately, though, what she finds isn’t a model so much as an accrual of usable evidence to consider. Many writers had tried sobriety. Some had succeeded. She could try and succeed too.
Jamison is an adherent of Alcoholics Anonymous, which she acknowledges isn’t the sole proven path to sobriety. (Though that acknowledgment may be too brief to please some readers.) She’s less focused, though, on the Higher Power than with the we in Step One, those who find themselves helpless over alcohol. For Jamison, the communal aspect of meetings, the sharing of “drunkalogs,” is what helps. The urge for sharing makes sense, since so many of the agonizing anecdotes she shares about herself involve moments when she is isolated and unprotected: walking home drunk one night and getting punched in the face; another night when she was raped; many other nights drinking alone or going to parties and chasing isolation. “I got so drunk I had to lock myself in our bedroom and slap myself — hard, across the cheek — to get myself undrunk again. It didn’t work.” Her boyfriend throughout the period is a poet whose flirtatious personality stokes her jealousy, but without any actual infidelity to point to, her jealousy is a projection of an unresolved loneliness.
Is it too easy to connect those fears to her drinking? Is it too simplistic to call the fellowship she finds in church basements a balm to those fears? The book’s very bulk answers the question: The Recovering is nearly 500 pages and has such as intense and clarified energy, such a bone-deep compulsion to work out recovery’s paradoxes, that you feel she could go on for twice as long. (And I would happily read that book.) And yet, in the same way that all those literary writers’ experiences matter, the drunkalogs she hears in meetings matter, because they become part of a more basic story. “The paradox of recovery stories, I was learning, was that you were supposed to relinquish your ego by authoring a story in which you also starred,” she says.
She’s the star of The Recovering, but her experience is rooted in those of countless others. They make meaning not because they’re unique, but because they’re shared; they live in their telling.