Jamison was made to “close-read” a piece of erotic fiction in front of the assembled. (This is, naturally, how would-be book critics are assessed at The New York Times as well.) There was a food fight. The drink this time was Beefeater gin.
From Harvard, cut to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Jamison went next. One of the attractions/repulsions of “The Recovering” is watching Jamison spy and then grasp nearly every rung on the literary-intellectual status ladder.
At Iowa City parties, poets wrestled in kiddie pools filled with Jell-O. Bar tabs were rung up at the same joints where well-oiled legends like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver drank themselves into oblivion. “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets,” Jamison writes, “and my nights trying to sleep with live ones. I love-groped my way through the future canon.”
From Iowa she goes to Yale, for a Ph.D. in English literature, then to the artists’ colony Yaddo, where she writes fiction. (She published a novel, “The Gin Closet,” in 2010; the book that made her name, a radiant collection of essays called “The Empathy Exams,” arrived in 2014.) Trips to Milan and Mexicali and Nicaragua are recounted.
Jamison places a mental asterisk next to every achievement and all-nighter. These indicate how deeply unhappy she frequently was, drinking her way into regular blackouts, cutting and starving herself, crying in closets and alleys, having sex with strange men. That night chained up at the Advocate? She blacked out and had to be told, later, that she’d vomited in a friend’s car.
Jamison had romanticized the “unhinged sparks of luminous chaos” she saw in the lives and work of writers like the poet John Berryman. She wanted a sliver of the authenticating chaos all to herself; she got it, and more.
In “The Recovering,” Jamison’s story is braided with the larger story of addiction in America. We read about Nixon’s war on drugs and about narcotics prisons. Theorists, clinicians and neuropharmacologists are cited. The career arcs of artist-drinkers like Berryman, Jean Rhys and Billie Holiday are traced.
This material has been hashed over many times in previous books, and in the first half of “The Recovering” Jamison brings little that’s new to this discussion. You frequently feel you’re reading filler; mental sawdust.
The first half is off-putting in other ways. Jamison is close to humorless as a writer, and she rubs and rubs our noses in her bad-girl bona fides. Every lily is painted, black. She performs a down-and-out version of what the essayist and critic Logan Pearsall Smith called a “swimgloat,” a triumphal glide through society.
The two aspects of this memoir don’t mix particularly well. I would have dropped this book gently behind the sofa if I weren’t contractually obligated to finish it. But I’ll admit that I’m glad I did clean my plate.
The great surprise of “The Recovering” is that the second half is close to magnificent, and genuinely moving. This is that rare addiction memoir that gets better after sobriety takes hold.
Jamison joins Alcoholics Anonymous and, after a relapse, gets sober. She is a powerful describer of the kind of community she enters with A.A. meetings. She evokes the church basements and Styrofoam cups of coffee and day-old pastries as well as any writer since David Foster Wallace.
Wallace turns out to be an important figure in this memoir. He is among those writers, along with Denis Johnson and others, whose work improved after he stopped drinking. Jamison loves the sense of sobriety in Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest” because, she writes, “it wasn’t stolid, or pedantic; it was palpable and crackling and absurd. It was so brutally alive on every page.”
Similarly, she loves the way that Johnson published four novels, a poetry collection, a book of stories and a screenplay in the decade after he got sober. “His was the arc I’d been looking for: the possibility of sobriety as jet fuel.”
The links Jamison draws between sobriety and creativity derive from what she calls her “unsexy” dissertation at Yale, which was titled “The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature.” These are worth the price of admission. They are (I think?) worth the more than 200 pages it takes to begin to arrive at them.
Inside every obese person, it is said, there’s a thin person dying to get out. Inside every piece of marble, there is a sculpture. Inside the 500-plus pages of “The Recovery” is a shorter, finer book and maybe even a screenplay awaiting someone. In this case I am not entirely unhappy to have taken the long way home.
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