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Writing About Drinking And Writing
on May 1, 2015
The alcoholic author’s an embedded staple of American fiction, figuratively speaking—something that seems necessary, but that all too often avoids critical scrutiny. One often sees the straight and narrow and respectable surfaces of their lives, while forgetting about the twisted contortions beneath.
Hokey metaphors aside, this alcoholic author can attest that it’s very easy to judge one’s worth as a writer by comparing oneself to the public success of those who have gone before, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds, the ones whose books have earned them Pulitzers and Nobels and seemingly permanent places in the firmament. (It’s easy, too, to use authorship as an excuse for alcoholism, to embrace the drama and the craziness of the latter in the hopes of using it as fodder for the former. Based on personal experience, it does eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, and one also ends up tempted to entirely abandon books for bottles.)
I digress. Laing’s excellently written and thoroughly researched book performs a valuable public service here, not by pointing out the myriad exceptions to the alcoholic author rule (both the infinity of anonymous alcoholics who have fallen by the wayside without succeeding as authors, and the authors who didn’t drink alcoholically) but by instead casting a critical eye on the most noteworthy examples, looking behind the simple and attractive front, pulling them out to analyze them in their entirety, and seeing how they often fall apart.
As Laing writes, there are no shortage of potential subjects for this book. But for the sake of narrative, she focuses on six lives that are more or less interconnected at various points: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Along the way, she details enough of her personal story to show that she’s no crusading teetotaler, but rather an average temperate drinker (a “normie,” in recoveryspeak) who’s witnessed the ugliness of unchecked alcoholism firsthand.
It works in no small part because of the testimony of the subjects themselves, expressed at length in diaries and journals and letters that give their own witness to that unattractive side of their lives. And Laing does a great job of both sampling and distilling the private lives of these public men. Writing about Tennessee Williams’ diary, for instance, Laing says, “…his grand theme…is the unremitting drama of his physical self, which is to say sex, illness, anxiety and self-medication in the form of alcohol, Seconal and the sedatives he called pinkies…” Laing continues “The difference between this voice and the voice of the plays and essays is so profound that at times it’s hard to believe they belong to the same person. One is large-hearted and attentive to human pain; the other is self-inetersted, his attention directed not out into the world but inward, illuminating as if by torchlight the smallest shifts in his own person, from the condition of his stools to the disgust he experiences after ejaculation.”
It shouldn’t come as entirely a surprise that life as an alcoholic author isn’t as great as the romanticized mythos—Hemingway of course took his own life, so whatever joy and happiness his career brought him was eventually slain by something that must have felt far more vast and bleak. But Laing’s explorations seem to make it abundantly clear that the unhappy later years were far more the rule than the exception. Williams’ later and lesser works, Hemingway’s diminishing output in the latter half of the 1950s, and Fitzgerald’s struggles with madness and depression suggest that they were all very much lessened by what many believe to be a progressive disease. The trip alluded to in the title is not, after all, a real trip; it’s taken from dialogue from one of Williams’ characters, and it perfectly represents the false hope of the alcoholic, the desire to find peace of mind in the bottle.
For some, it may still seem like a fair (if Faustian) bargain—to attain fame and stature at the expense of moral and physical degradation. (I know that, for me, it once felt like a worthy tradeoff.) And many alcoholic authors will, quite understandably, continue to make that deal. But Laing looks, too, at the later lives of those who at last found a way out of that false choice, while continuing to write excellently. And that, in the end, is this book’s beautiful and lasting message: contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous assertion, there are second acts, even for the alcoholic author. It’s possible to integrate it all into a seamless whole—to have both a body of work, and a life.