Books of The Times: Leslie Jamison’s Memoir Finds Its Footing in Sobriety


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.

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Leslie Jamison

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Beowulf Sheehan

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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Sunday Routine: How Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader, of Birch Coffee, Spend Their Sundays


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Paul Schlader, left, and Jeremy Lyman will often work out together and afterwards, go out for a — wait for it — coffee.

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Edu Bayer for The New York Times

As co-founders of Birch Coffee, a coffee roaster and local chain of cafes, Jeremy Lyman, 38, and Paul Schlader, 39, are used to being together for most of the day. They have even collaborated on video projects, including “Stay Regular,” in which they interview favorite customers, and more recently, “Birch Brewmasters Present,” a comedic take on coffeemaking. The two — who now oversee 10 locations — met in a 12-step recovery program 13 years ago. Mr. Lyman lives in East Harlem with his two pitbulls, Maki and Juna. Mr. Schlader lives on the Upper East Side with his wife Kara, 35, the head of accounts payable for Birch Coffee, and their two children, Ava, 6, and Wesley, 3.

DOGS, CHILDREN Jeremy: My idea of sleeping in is 6:30. Normally I wake up at 4:30, but on Sundays, I indulge a little. I have to rouse the dogs on weekdays to take them out for their walks, but on Sundays, they wake me up when they’re ready to go out. I have bottles of cold brew in my fridge and grab one first thing. Paul: I wake up at 6 during the week, but on the weekends, Kara and I stay in bed till 7:30. We could sleep longer, but the kids wake us up. I also start the day with a bottle of cold brew.

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Mr. Lyman with his dogs, Maki and Juna.

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Edu Bayer for The New York Times

EARN THE SHOWER Jeremy: I’m usually at Equinox by 8 a.m. It’s hard for me to get a jump on the day if I don’t feel as though I have earned my shower so I make it a priority to be active in the morning. I run on the treadmill and do weights and stretches. Paul: I am training for a Spartan Race, which is basically an obstacle course. The trainer I see during the week gives me a weekend program which involves pull-ups, burpees and dead lifts. Jeremy will join me if he’s up for it, and we’ll usually grab coffee together afterwards.

BRUNCH Jeremy: My pops, Gary, and I meet for breakfast every Sunday at Ludlow House, on the Lower East Side. We catch up on non-work-related topics since he also moonlights as my attorney. I eat their egg sandwich, and he gets an open-face Cheddar omelet. Paul: Kara will make us a stellar brunch. It could be hash-brown waffles, and she also makes killer eggs Benedict and coconut pancakes. Kara and I usually drink a pot of Assam tea.

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Mr. Schlader visits a Birch Coffee location with his wife Kara, their daughter, Ava, and their son, Wesley.

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Edu Bayer for The New York Times

OUT AND ABOUT Jeremy: When I get home from brunch, I take Maki and Juna on a walk through Marcus Garvey Park, in East Harlem. We always venture through the amphitheater. Paul: We love checking out different places in the city with the kids. If the weather is nice, even if it’s cold, we go to Carl Schurz Park by the East River. We’ve also been spending a lot of time exploring the museums. Ana and Wesley love the “Our Senses” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

MEETING Jeremy: My early evenings are spent attending a recovery meeting on the Upper East Side. The meeting is a significant part of my routine. Paul is there too. We have a unique connection. We know how to communicate with one another, and we take the tools we’ve learned in recovery and apply them to the business. Paul: The weekly recovery meetings are a foundational part of my week. As a family man and small-business owner, it’s critical to have my body and mind in tip-top shape. Jeremy and I will always be bonded in the struggle we have shared.

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Mr. Lyman, left, spends much of his Sunday with the Schlader family.

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Edu Bayer for The New York Times

DINNER CHEZ PAUL Jeremy: After the meeting, I head to Paul’s house for dinner. I love his kids and Kara and consider them to be my family. Paul: When Jeremy walks in the door, Wesley and Ava run to greet him. Kara always cooks us a great meal. In the winter, it’s stews and veggie chilies. We may also have tofu or salmon rice bowls.

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The Schladers often invite Mr. Lyman, left, over for family dinner. “I love his kids and Kara and consider them to be my family,” Mr. Lyman said.

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

TELEVISION Jeremy: If I can muscle through, I watch HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which is on at 11. If I am wiped, however, I’ll be asleep by 10. Paul: We put the kids in bed at 7:30. Ava stays up and reads for two hours while Wesley keeps running out of his bed to say goodnight to us yet another time. Kara and I are curled up on the living room couch watching our shows. Right now, we can’t get enough of “The Crown.” We move into our bedroom around 10:30, read for a half-hour or so, and then, it’s lights out.

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