Every alcoholic has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.
There are two standard anecdotes, one usually about outrageous behavior, and another about the pit at the end of the road. Almost everyone who drinks has a few of the first sort of story.
“I thought things were going great and I was happy to be sober and proud to be in recovery, but I kept having these urges. I was in a good mood and I talked about the urges and people helped me understand. And now it’s two weeks later and I don’t remember these two weeks.” That is the second kind of story; I heard it from someone today. The speaker had “picked up,” which is recovery-speak for “drank.” He “went out” is another phrase.
In her 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing quotes Andrew Turnbull’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured above):
He describes Fitzgerald in his room at the Grove Park Inn making endless lists “of cavalry officers, athletes, cities, popular tunes. Later, he realized that he had been witnessing the disintegration of his own personality and likened the sensation to that of a man standing at twilight on a deserted range with an empty rifle in his hands and the targets down.” The images are drawn from Fitzgerald’s own account in “The Crack-up,” but somehow have more impact here. (Laing, 84)
That is the second kind of story, too.
Towards the end of my drinking, but really, nowhere near the end, I remember extemporizing for several hours straight about NASCAR to a friend. Now, I am a racing fan so I have a fan’s knowledge base, but I remember feeling like I had turned into an obsessed young boy who has discovered the backside of his baseball cards and wants to read off every single statistic out loud to everyone. And the moment came from nowhere. It was possibly a symptom of delirium tremens, but I recall feeling safe in settled facts and unsafe in the open field of conversation. The subject matter of the facts was chosen at random, by me, and could have been any other topic area, but I cleverly picked one that none of my friends shared enthusiasm for. There could be no conversation. For my friend, it must have felt like what Turnbull described about watching Fitzgerald as I rattled off lists of winners and possible routes to the championship for certain race teams. For hours. (“Cavalry officers, athletes, cities.”) I also remember that I detected an intervention in my future and I figured that if I spoke continuously, no intervention could happen. Instead, I probably hastened one.
That is the second kind of story. My brain was firing blanks, a lot of them in rapid succession, as confidently as my brain had ever fired off substantive thoughts in graduate school classes or in front of classrooms, but blanks anyway. A line from a Robert Lowell poem, “Eye and Tooth,” haunted me: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.”
Laing’s book mixes travel narrative, expository journalism, and literary biography in pursuit of a personal answer to a large question: “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically, I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She picks six male, American, Twentieth-century, writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—as her biographical subjects, even though she is young, British, female. These figures give her sufficient distance to look more closely at the subject; she alludes to being raised in a house “under the rule of alcohol.” She adds, “There are some things that one can’t address at home,” and decides to travel to America.
What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and along the way, some of the many others who have suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge. (Laing, 12)
(The ‘Echo Spring’ of her title comes from Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which Brick, to get away from Big Daddy, excuses himself. Big Daddy asks, “Where you goin’?” and Brick replies, memorably, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Echo Spring is his brand of bourbon and the nickname for the liquor cabinet holding it.)
It is the first kind of story, the outrageous anecdote, the prurient tale, that Laing says that she wants avoid, and she successfully does; the hair-raising bits are kept to a minimum, and, when seen, sketched very deftly, as on page 82: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.” That was Fitzgerald at his hijinks-loving “best.” Fitzgerald’s fellow famous Baltimoran appears in the next sentence, at his most pruriently judgmental. “According to Mencken, [Fitzgerald] shocked a Baltimore dinner party ‘by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.'”
Laing finds and expresses the empathy that can be found in Fitzgerald’s apparent fondness for drunkenly dropping trou, though, and writes about the mask that baldly revealing oneself can prove to be: “Undressing is an act of concealment sometimes. You can yank down your pants and show off your gospel pipe and still be a man in mortal terror of revealing who you are.” An alcoholic will shock to prevent a embarrassing conversation about his drinking.
It is that mortal terror that animates much addiction and certainly contributed to the art these six writers created; to her credit, Laing’s empathy is clear-eyed and clear-hearted and she does not look for redemption where there is none. That second kind of story is too heart-breaking, after all, and each of her six writers lived it. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Berryman did not survive theirs.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 14 asks, “Open your nearest book to page 82. Take the third full sentence on the page, and work it into a post somehow.” This was it: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.”
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