By some uncanny chance, the title character of a significant semiautobiographical story written in 1839 by Edgar Allan Poe, who also happened to have been an alcoholic, gave himself the name William Wilson. In My Name Is Bill, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, though not much stranger than the tale of Poe's narrator, who becomes mad to the point of murder. Cheever's attractive protagonist harmed himself in many ways, but ultimately helped countless thousands.
The first half of Wilson's life was a perpetual battle with alcohol; the second, a continual struggle to secure both his day-to-day sobriety and the organization that became Alcoholics Anonymous. Cheever's portrayal of Wilson's story never resorts to hagiography and doesn't dodge the controversies that other biographers have exploited, such as Wilson's womanizing and LSD use. The author of Note Found in a Bottle places greater emphasis on Wilson's rural Vermont childhood; his father's early desertion; his mother's stern, Calvinist nature; and the influence of his few male friends and authority figures. As a boy and adolescent, Wilson bounced among various activities and social groups, seldom sticking with one for long. He tended to seize upon short-term promises of happiness and security, whether a questionable job prospect or, with disastrous consequences, his first alcoholic drink. He grabbed impulsively at the first marriage opportunity, with Lois Burnham, four years his senior, and his drinking severely tested their marriage. In 1935, Wilson's contact with the Oxford Group and its Christian reform philosophy, and with Robert Smith, an Ohio doctor and alcoholic, laid a fragile foundation for the program and fellowship they would build into the worldwide organization for recovering alcoholics. Until his death in 1971, Wilson worked to strengthen the evolution of AA and never entirely abandoned his search for a better cure. Although the compression of so much material disserves Cheever's intentions, the resulting lumpiness is oddly consistent with Wilson's life and character. Agent, Kim Witherspoon. (Feb.) Forecast: The book has a built-in audience (AA claims to have two million members), and could benefit from the publication of an AA book specifically designed for women, The Little Red Book for Women, coming from Hazelden in February. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Not a perfect life but ultimately a success; from a best-selling author. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
An earnest but flawed biography of the man Aldous Huxley described as "the greatest social architect of the twentieth century." A vast Alcoholics Anonymous archive, including hundreds of letters, helps novelist and memoirist Cheever (As Good As I Could Be, 2001, etc.) plumb the lifelong drive, intelligence, and self-doubt of AA cofounder Bill Wilson (1895-1971). Growing up in rural Vermont, Wilson witnessed principles of service and egalitarianism in action that he later embodied in AA's famous "Twelve Traditions." But he also felt unmoored when his parents divorced and his mother left him in the care of her father as she pursued a medical degree. Marriage to an educated older socialite fed his insecurity, eased only when he took his first drink while serving in WWI. Over the next 18 years, his growing addiction resulted in countless jobs lost or never pursued. Cheever is at her best in detailing the creation of AA, in 1935, by Dr. Bob Smith and Wilson, who recognized that alcoholism was a disease that could only be countered by a "Power greater than ourselves." The synthesis of ideas drawn from medicine, psychology, and moral reformers such as the Oxford Group and the Washington Temperance Movement provided a flexibility that enabled AA to grow to 30,000 members by 1946. Cheever acknowledges that Wilson was "not the stuff of saints," particularly after turning over AA to elected representatives in 1956. (He used his newfound freedom to experiment with LSD, Oujia boards, and extramarital relationships.) Her own experiences as a recovering alcoholic (see Note Found in a Bottle, 1999) deepen the author's insight into AA's philosophy and Wilson's struggles, and she writes lyrically about theenvironments in which her subject sometimes took refuge from his fame. But Cheever settles too often for cliches ("We are the most puritanical country on earth, and the most profligate"), and although she tells readers about Wilson's charisma, she does not make us feel it. Takes the measure of Wilson's achievement, but not his mesmeric personality. (b&w illustrations, not seen) Agent: Kim Witherspoon
The New York Times Book Review
"Susan Cheever...decants the ups and downs of a remarkable man [and] does so in her distinctive style: succinct chapters, pithy profiles and telling detail...even more important are the insights and empathy so credibly her own as a reformed drinker who attended meetings of AA with her father, novelist John Cheever."
The New York Times Book Review
"As the biography of one of the most humane and beneficial Americans who ever lived, it is a national treasure."
"[A] wise, well-reported life story of the man who changed the way the world deals with addiction."