An avant-garde writer recalls his journey from gutter drunk to PEN American member.
Kaufman (Matches, 2005, etc.) throws in his lot with the boozer bards in this second memoir about his near-lethal alcohol addiction, recovery and long struggle to become a writer. After touching briefly on his horrific childhood in the Bronx as the son of a French Jewish Holocaust survivor who beat him mercilessly (the territory of his first memoir, Jew Boy, 2000), Kaufman details his traumatizing years with the Israel Defense Forces and his torrid, adulterous affair (which inspired his novel Matches). Kaufman’s blackout drinking is epic throughout and reaches a crescendo when he returns to New York suffering psychotic delusions from PTSD sustained in the Israeli Army. The author’s narrative whips schizophrenically between manic moments of literary self-aggrandizing and deeply depressive moments of shocking wreckage (“Awoke in gutters or curled up to keep warm on manhole covers and grates in cul-de-sacs, filthy, nauseous, hungover, astonished at my gargantuan appetite for the abyss”). Acceptance into Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts program, his involvement with the emerging Spoken Word poetry scene and the birth of his daughter briefly buoyed him, but not enough to keep him from the bottle. Eventually he hit rock bottom and was kicked out of a crash pad by his acid-dealer roommates, becoming homeless. Kaufman’s sexual perversions sometimes serve his theme of bondage, but occasionally veer into misogyny. Literature literally saved the author, on a bench in New York’s Tompkins Square Park when a fellow poet talked him into trying recovery, and the second half of the book follows Kaufman’s journey to sobriety in San Francisco. The author’s intention to stake his territory among the literary elite is clear, but such efforts can feel name-droppy at times (an anecdote about desperately seeking Isaac Bashevis Singer at his Upper West Side apartment is interesting, but a listing of Kaufman’s Columbia classmates is not). Although the author’s tendency to drop the “I” from his sentence often feels affected, it also occasionally hit its mark, lending a hard edge to Kaufman’s largely intoxicating prose.
A slightly bloated but addictive memoir of self-destruction, recuperation and a literary coming-of-age.