Book of the week
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
(Little, Brown, $30)
Leslie Jamison’s new book buzzes with urgency, said David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Small wonder, “for Jamison is writing to survive.” Even so, her relationship with the substance that imperils her—alcohol—remains “something of a love story.” She describes her first sip of Champagne, experienced at 12, as akin to magic (“hot pine needles down my throat”). As a 21-year-old student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she thrilled at the chance to follow in the footsteps of forebears she thinks of as “legendary writer-drunks.” But heavy drinking doesn’t inspire; it destroys, and so Jamison eventually committed to sobriety. Mixing memoir, testimony from fellow addicts, and profiles of famous alcoholic writers, she’s engineered a deep and fruitful investigation into the lure of intoxication—in all forms—and the struggle to adequately resist that lure.
Such is Jamison’s talent, “she could rivet a reader with a treatise on toast,” said Gary Greenberg in The New Yorker. She’s acutely aware, though, that she’s covering well-trod ground here: Every story about addiction, she writes, boils down to “Desire. Use. Repeat.” But there are lessons in the patterns she finds when she turns to the many writers—John Berryman, Raymond Carver, and Elizabeth Bishop among them—who glimpsed potential transcendence in drinking only to discover the portal was a trap. Jamison sought escape from that trap through A.A., and after chafing at the program’s platitudes, accepted the constraints of the A.A. template because using them to explain her addiction made escape possible. “Accompanying Jamison on her flight to discover those constraints is thrilling.” But her narrative flags, “briefly but tellingly,” when she hands storytelling duties over to other addicts, whose struggles are real but whose insights seldom match hers.
The book also indulges a strain of magical thinking, said Clancy Martin in Bookforum. “I applaud Jamison for not romanticizing drunks,” and she’s right that Carver, Denis Johnson, and many other writers hit their stride only after cleaning up. But she shapes other stories to fit her belief that everyone writes better sober. “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.” None of this negates the value of The Recovering—“if you’re interested in the relationship between artists and addiction, you must read it.” But “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.”