Leslie Jamison wastes no time setting the terms of her relationship with alcohol in “The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath.” Here it is, in the very first paragraph: “You never told me it felt this good.” She is remembering her first drink, just shy of 13, “the crackle of champagne, its hot pine needles down my throat.” But what she is really describing is anticipation, or is it more accurate to call it a form of love?
“The Recovering,” after all, is something of a love story, or a series of overlapping love stories, or a story about the moment that love fails. It is the history of Jamison’s drinking, while at the same time it seeks to wrestle with the very question of drinking and what it means. “Addiction doesn’t surprise me,” she writes. “It seems more surprising that some people aren’t addicted to anything. From the night of my first buzz, I didn’t understand why everyone in the world wasn’t getting drunk every night.”
This is a truth so clear it hits with the force of revelation: Yes, yes, you imagine as you read. I’ve often wondered the same thing — if it feels so good, why can’t we do it all the time? Then, I think of an exchange I had once at a party, after I turned down a last drink because I’d had enough. “That’s the difference,” said a guest with whom I’d just been making small talk. “Once I had the first drink, I could never make the choice to stop.”
Jamison’s book exists right there, in the middle of that conversation, between intoxication and its corollary, which is a world in which intoxication is not, could never be, enough. Or perhaps it’s that intoxication is too much, all-consuming, until everything else (love, work, identity) is churned up in its wake.
Jamison knows that experience from the inside; until her late 20s, she drank “toward zero gravity, what Hemingway called ‘rum-brave’ and Lowry called ‘tequila-unafraid.’” Alcohol made everything sharper, until it didn’t; “I mashed the lime in my vodka tonic,” she recalls, “and glimpsed — in the sweet spot between two drinks and three, then three and four, then four and five — my life as something illuminated from the inside.”
That incandescence, the notion of alcohol as a candle burning bright within us, is one appeal of drinking, which seduces us first by appearing to free us … of our inhibitions as much as our responsibilities. “Reason for addiction: To avoid monotony of living,” reads the intake form of a man named Robert Burnes, at one time a patient at the Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Ky. (an early rehabilitation center). It is, I want to tell you, as concise a description of the desire to obliterate one’s consciousness with substances as any I have ever read.
Burnes’ presence highlights one of the brilliant, and unexpected, moves in “The Recovering”: Jamison’s decision to make room for other voices, other experiences. In part, this is a defensive posture; “When I told people I was writing a book about addiction and recovery,” she acknowledges, “I often saw their eyes glaze. Oh, that book, they seemed to say, I’ve already read that book.” More to the point, it allows Jamison to open her investigations both to her recovery and to the culture of recovery itself.
She’s right; we have read this story before, which is the idea, or one of them, that every addiction saga shares certain parameters. She makes this explicit by introducing us to a wide array of individuals — “bikers and housewives, businessmen on lunch breaks, a few farmers” — who remind her that sobriety relies on recognizing not only that you are not alone but also that there is nothing about your narrative that renders you unique.
“At meetings,” Jamison writes, “my stories were hardly the best ones in the room”; the first time she ever spoke at one, someone shouted, “This is boring!” — a violation of program etiquette but a valuable lesson nonetheless. It’s a humbling, in other words, embodied by the clichés and bromides of the 12 steps (keep it simple, admit that you are powerless, one day at a time).
That’s especially hard for writers and artists, who have devoted themselves to standing apart. “My whole life,” Jamison tells us, “I’d been taught that something was good because it was original — that singularity was the driving engine of value. Make it new, the modernists had said.… The insistence on simplicity was part of AA’s larger insistence that we were all the same.”
This is a key theme of “The Recovering” because Jamison is investigating writing also, or more specifically, the fear of writing without alcohol. In addition to her other narratives, she seeds the book with stories of writers who suffered from addiction: Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, Elizabeth Bishop and Jean Rhys, John Berryman and Charles Jackson, whose 1944 novel “The Lost Weekend” may be most remarkable, in Jamison’s view, for refusing to offer false hope.
At times, these sections can read a bit like thesis outtakes. (Jamison did her PhD dissertation on addiction and creativity.) But the paradox is that they work because they give a sense, perhaps as viscerally as the personal material, of the writer using everything she has to flounder toward some sort of meaning — not resolution, never resolution, but at least a form of reckoning.
“You’re special — it’s OK,” she quotes David Foster Wallace, “but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang. It’s a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms. It kind of takes your breath away.” Wallace is referring to humanity, which is both the most and least special thing imaginable, 7 billion idiosyncratic souls trapped in the same relentless cycle of life and death. There is nothing to do except to keep on keeping on.
“I was trying to do the right thing, after all — get sober again,” Jamison writes of “[t]he first day of my second sobriety,” when she borrowed a friend’s car and promptly drove it into the wall of a parking lot. She feels not just chagrined but betrayed. “If I was going to stop drinking,” she goes on, “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. 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.”
If you’ve read Jamison’s previous work, particularly her magnificent essay collection “The Empathy Exams,” you will be familiar with some of this material; “Patient wants to know if she can drink alcohol on this medication,” she writes in its title effort, detailing the aftermath of a failed procedure to stabilize an irregular heartbeat. The incident is retold in this book, although with less distance; it is as if she has shrugged off her restraints.
Indeed, that’s where “The Recovering” leaves us, with the sense of a writer intent on holding nothing back.
It’s not that one approach is more effective than the other, just that they are different — in “The Empathy Exams,” we appreciate the care of her language, her construction, whereas here we are aware, most fundamentally, of her urgency. This, of course, is as it should be, for Jamison is writing to survive. “It’s hard to write this way,” she admits, “full-throated and shameless, with such crude awe at what recovery came to mean in my life.”
Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.” A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.
Little, Brown and Co.: 544 pp., $30