Drink and Drugs News DDN September 2018 - Page 17

Reviews Leslie Jamison’s book ‘The Recovering’ prompts Mark Reid to explore the relationship between writers and their addiction www.drinkanddrugsnews.com his is a thorough evaluation of alcohol addiction and recovering, and their relation to writers. Jamison is an American academic who is in recovery. She did much of her drinking in Iowa City, where it seemed alcohol could be a creative muse; a ‘proof of wisdom’. Authors, including John Berryman and Raymond Carver, appeared to have built a literary tradition which amalgamated alcoholism and profundity. For a while, Jamison drank to this lineage which went back to Jack London and his 1913 novel John Barleycorn. London saw a ‘white light’ in alcohol granting access to truths. A 1967 edition of Life magazine glorified the poet, Berryman, who wrote The Dream Songs. The piece began: ‘Whisky and ink. These are the fluids he needs to describe his penetrating awareness of the fact of human mortality’. (In the end, he committed suicide by jumping off a river bridge.) For now, Life put Berryman on a pedestal: ‘Apart from a compulsion to take home a bottle of whiskey every night, he has a true intellectual’s indifference to material things.’ With his analyst (to whom he owed money) the poet worried that solving his emotional issues would curb his imagination. Away from the hype, Berryman was a standard iss ue drunk, typified by low self-esteem: he rang his students in the middle of the night, worse for wear, to check he’d been ‘brilliant’ in his lecture the morning before. The narrative that alcohol lets writers see the otherwise invisible was knocked down in 1944 with Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend. The plot is summed up by Jamison: ‘a guy named Don Birnam gets drunk. Don isn’t broken by the fallen world, or the horrors of war, or the cruelties of love. There’s no emotional suspense, his drinking was nothing’. Among the protagonist’s prospective titles for the book he, in turn, is trying to write, is ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this’. The Lost Weekend is the dull truth about drinking. Jackson went on to have many more lost weekends himself, realising that writing a bestselling book was a way of being his ‘own hero’: ‘too self-absorbed, too self- infatuated… I drank’. His on-off relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous is a very clear example of how a writer can get confused in recovery. Sometimes he liked AA’s call to humility, ordinariness and getting outside himself. He also felt AA would ‘flatten him out’ in years of ‘empty wellbeing and blank sobriety’. When Life magazine looked to profile Jackson, they loved the road to ruin part, but the solution bit was too tepid. The pieces didn’t run. Billy Wilder’s 1945 film version of The Lost Weekend won four Oscars, including Best Screenplay. Critics hailed its portrayal of alcoholism as ‘uncompromising’. In fact, the film did compromise the ending of the novel, which pointed to the main character drinking himself to death. (Jackson himself committed suicide from an overdose of barbiturates.) The Hollywood ‘happy’ ending finds a sudden belief that the love of a girlfriend, and a desire to write about his bad experiences, could stop a drunk from drinking. As Wilder put it: ‘If he can lick his illness long enough to put some words on paper, there must be hope.’ Women writers who drink, argues Jamison, do not fit into the male club. Jean Rhys ‘deforms the icon of the drunk genius’ in Good Morning, Midnight. Desperate female characters who stand accused of abandoning their gender roles as carers for others, ‘take cheap rooms in dead-end streets’. They cry their tears of self-pity in public. Long after Rhys went missing presumed dead (from drink), she resurfaced in her mid-seventies with Wide Sargasso Sea – a classic work, irrespective of her alcoholism. Raymond Carver was bounced into a vigorous lifestyle by recovery, and his writing was resuscitated. He said his later poetry was ‘tied up with feelings of self-worth, since I quit drinking’ (There were battles, though, with his editor who wanted to keep things bleak, and pruned Carver’s words by almost half). Jamison is inspired by ‘Carver, pounding at his typewriter at home, and facing the wind in his sailboat, catching big fish under bigger skies’. ‘I have a thing / for this cold swift water just looking at it makes my blood run/ and my skin tingle’. Carver found himself ‘loving everything that increases me’. And many in recovery will identify with losing (and finding) themselves in the power and beauty of nature; in Carver’s ‘open spaces’. The great outdoors contrast with the claustrophobic demands of drinking, in sordid places or isolation. Jamison describes alcoholism as ‘making the world small, the narrowing “this, only this”.’ So, there can be uplift in writing from recovery – a lens of creativity alcohol insidiously suggests, but cannot provide. One note of caution to Carver’s optimism. Proof of Leslie Jamison’s talent as an essayist comes in a brilliant piece on the ex-drinker writer Stephen King – his monstrous dry-drunk, in The Shining endlessly writes ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. The character may be abstinent, but he’s not happy and can’t express himself. He concocts a binge and an axe-wielding rampage. If you are keeping a recovery journal, try to enjoy it. The Recovering – Intoxication and its Aftermath, by Leslie Jamison; published in April 2018 by Granta, ISBN 9780316259613. September 2018 | drinkanddrugsnews | 17