If you had two extra glasses of wine last night (or if you don't even remember last night!); if you say you're a writer but it's been more than a day, more than a week since you wrote your last thousand words, I hate to say it, but this book--"Sams in a Dry Season," by Ivan Gold--is for you.
This novel is the Gypsy's warning, the blood and feathers on your doorstep, the moment at the party when you think you've been very witty, but you haven't been witty at all.
Jason Sams is a novelist (at least he wrote some short stories, and then a novel, once), of middle years. He pieces together a living by teaching creative writing and churning out book reviews. Nothing wrong with that; thousands of writers do it. But Jason Sams' life is sour at the center. He's about to lose his creative writing job; his students have been complaining about him coming to class drunk. And those reviews are getting harder and harder for him to write because each one reminds him of the book he isn't writing.
The thing is: Jason is a "special case." He could be a genius! He once showed such promise! He knew all the fine writers of his generation! (And so on, and so on.) His long-suffering wife and his lovable son are very good at not nagging him about this, but he feels their nagging all the same: This "genius" is one baby step away from being a full-on bum. And face it: Jason has probably already taken that one baby step. He drinks. That's the long and the short of it.
But Jason would probably expostulate that all the great American (male) writers have been drunks. Look at Hemingway! Look at Faulkner! Look at Fitzgerald! Or, look across the ocean and check out Dylan Thomas, or the elder Kingsley Amis. It's honorable and expected among macho writers to drink.
But for every one writer who drinks, there must be a thousand drunks who claim to be writers, and a hundred of those boozers who actually manage to turn out a couple of books. Jason Sams is drowning in liquor and bad faith. His drinking has ruined his relationships with his (dead) editor, his agent, his own reviewers.
Worse than that, Jason Sams has a horrible problem with his own past life, his own childhood. Sams was poor, Jewish, uneducated. His ancestors dealt in junk.
At the beginning, and through the middle, of this novel, Jason Sams hates himself and everything he came from with the bottomless, fathomless loathing of the out-of-control alcoholic: "Vast, black reservoir of anxiety churned just below everything I did," Sams tells us.
No, Jason Sams, with his one volume of stories, his one novel, may never be another Lionel Trilling. But thank God and guess what: Sams, from somewhere, gets the nerve to stop drinking, and 13 months later, he hauls out to (his second) AA meeting. New stories, new characters, new ways of seeing, of hearing, of loving, start rushing in. People still nag Sams for not writing. But instead of pale, mute family cries, these exhortations to write come from boozy old winos, and Sams can only laugh.
The one dry season, that beastly creative dryness, is eased away by the healing dryness of sobriety. Finally, after 16 years, Jason Sams begins to write again. This is a wonderful book and a wonderful warning. You don't have to drink yourself nearly to death to write. You can skip that drinking part, concentrate on those Twelve Steps, write your thousand words a day, and turn out a brilliant book. It's downright un-American. But it works.
Next: John Wilkes reviews "The World of Rene Dubos," by Gerard Piel and Osborn Segerberg Jr., editors (Henry Holt).