Country music songwriters have made modest fortunes penning tales about the bottle, and intoxication in all its sensual forms, and the consequences—mostly negative. Sunny Sweeney’s “Pass the Pain” (woman tells the bartender, “Slide some more hurtin’ my way/Just pass the pain”) might even serve as an epigraph for Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, a riveting account, researched and personal, of addiction.
This book, whose origins reside in Jamison’s doctoral thesis, acknowledges the allure of intoxicants, from bottles to bodies. Jamison’s research and the book’s examinations include major artistic figures who struggled with addiction—David Foster Wallace, Jean Rhys, John Berryman, Malcolm Lowry, Billie Holliday, Denis Johnson, Ray Carver—and those figures most connected to the struggles of sobriety, including AA Founder Bill Wilson.
There is no discounting the pains described, but Jamison finds affirmations of sobriety along the way: in the lives of these figures and in her own journey from addiction to the Sisyphian work of sobriety: “You could read the book as a movement from external intoxication to another kind of intoxication—what it means be intoxicated by daily living and showing up for daily responsibilities,” Jamison explains. “I wanted the seduction of sobriety to feel just as palpable for my reader as the spell of drinking itself.”
The very title of the book, as well as the multiple stories embedded in the narrative, makes clear that the work of recovery—for Jamison, for all who suffer from addiction—is ongoing, lived daily, a process: a hard lesson. “When you surrender to the ongoingness of recovery,” she explains, “there’s no satisfying closure. You’re still inside an unfolding story that lacks resolution. I’m pushing back in this book against the formulaic tidiness you sometimes find in addiction stories.
“In addition,” Jamison continues, “I wanted to write a book that could speak more broadly to people who have endured any kind of toxic relationship—to a person or a substance. I wanted to open up for my readers the reasons why people return to something destructive.”
In her analysis, Jamison uncovers gender distinctions connected to intoxication: female selfishness versus male genius (a trope that extends to sexual desire as well). “Extremity of feeling has been culturally less acceptable for women,” Jamison notes. “It’s that ancient fear or archetype of women out of control.”
The Recovering sits as an interesting pair with Jamison’s earlier, acclaimed essay collection, The Empathy Exams, whose material often winds its way into Jamison’s new book. Just as the essays deal with what it means to be human, this work addresses the too frequent insufficiencies humans feel. Jamison coins a marvelous phrase in The Recovering to assert this condition: “the groove of lack.” Jamison attempts to acknowledge human yearning and depathologize it: “I’m trying to reframe yearning away from being understood as a signal that something is wrong. To yearn for something carries us toward change, and change is generative. Understanding yearning as human,” she continues, “is a way to make peace with the feeling—not to make it disappear, but to make a place for it.”
Jamison’s years in Iowa, a student in the famous MFA writing program, home to legendary writers (with legendary appetites), informs a significant part of the book. The Recovering starts, in part, with the story of Raymond Carver at Iowa and Iowa writers—so much a part of Jamison’s own story—and the book ends, largely, with Carver: Jamison’s pilgrimage to Port Angeles (Carver’s post-Iowa, post-Syracuse, post-McArthur grant life).
Jamison thought of Carver for many years as a “drunken sage.” “It was a revelation for me to realize that he'd eventually gotten sober—or largely sober—and that so much of the writing I loved most had come from his sobriety.” It wasn't simply that his creative output while sober was important to Jamison, “but the fact that I'd misunderstood his creativity as primarily linked to his dysfunctional drinking, when in fact it emerged largely from the aftermath of that drinking—and the fact of that misunderstanding ultimately came to feel saving and liberating to me.” When she went to Port Angeles to see his grave and where he lived, “I found a landscape that seemed to evoke, in distilled form, the energy I'd found in sobriety: illuminating light, brightness and chill and wind, fresh air, a sense of possibility, a sense of extravagant beauty.”
J. W. Bonner writes regularly for Kirkus, and he teaches writing and Humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, N.C. His appreciation for the writer Allan Gurganus is forthcoming in the North Carolina Literary Review.