Brand building through storytelling

A writer’s guide to drunks

If someone you love is an alcoholic, one question is never very far from your mind: “Why is he doing this to me?” Maybe your drunk is a she, but that’s a detail. All of these stories are essentially the same, and one of them is mine. While my alcoholic father was alive, and for some years after his death, I was firmly convinced that if he really cared about his family, he would not have abused us by drinking.

For people in families like mine, Christmas is the season of anxiety. How will he fail us this time? Who will witness our shame? Will we never see peace on earth?It’s been close to 30 years since I was last awakened by a slurred phone call from my father, who like me had been thinking of Christmases past (his guilt, my anger…the unbreakable bond). With the guidance of an Al-Anon group, I forgave him by degrees. I attained something close to serenity, but I must admit it gets a little frayed this time of year. So I turn to books. My latest Christmas present to myself is The Paris Review Interviews vol. III, which I bought for the bracing honesty of the late  Raymond Carver—short story writer, poet and reformed alcoholic.

Writers don’t know any more about drinking and its associated deceptions than your typical, salt-of-the-earth AA sponsor (my father was blessed to find several). But some alcoholic writers know how to tell the truth about their illness in terms any reader can understand. Take Stephen King, whose shivery classic TheShining is a symbolic treatment of alcoholism’s devastating impact on a family. Drunkenness has a rich literary history: think Dylan ThomasDorothy Parker,Ernest HemingwayJean Rhys…I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Okay, back to the Carver interview. Here’s his take on the literary drunk:  “Of course there’s a mythology that goes along with the drinking, but I was never into that. I was into the drinking itself. I suppose I began to drink heavily after I’d realized that the things I’d wanted most in life for myself and my writing, and my wife and children, were simply not going to happen. It’s strange. You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.” Carver became all of those things.

Funny how the simplest facts (like my postal code) can be the hardest to remember. When it comes to alcoholism, the central fact is this: at first drinking is the cure for every problem. Then it becomes the problem.

Carver quit drinking on June 2, 1977. “If you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life,” he told The Paris Review. The experience transformed him. “I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection….Every day that I wake up, I’m glad to wake up….In my drinking days I would sleep until noon or whatever and I would usually wake up with the shakes.”

Carver’s literary drinking buddies included John Cheever, who also managed to quit eventually. (This is a pattern in the Cheever family: daughter Susan, also a reformed drunk, writes a powerful blog on alcohol and American life for The New York Times.) In Cheever’s precisely observed tales of the tarnished, post-war American dream, all the characters drink…a lot.

Yesterday I reread “The Swimmer,” Cheever’s bold, harrrowing and ultimately heartbreaking parable of alcoholic regret. The first sentence immediately plants you in the land of the endless cocktail hour: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.'”

Well, not quite everyone. Certainly not Neddy Merrill, who lounges by the pool, one of those heedlessly charming, middle-aged boy-men we’ve all met a time or two (of course he will never grow up to be a “Ned”). A man of means, good spirits and a mighty tolerance for gin, he’s just dreamed up the most original of afternoon adventures: swimming from pool to pool to the posh home he shares with his wife and daughters. “His life was not confining,” Cheever says—an ominous choice of words. (Every word in this story is placed with a grave and gorgeous inevitability.) As Neddy’s journey unfolds, both the the extent and the cost of his alcoholic rootlessness are revealed with a force that is almost Biblical.

The action purportedly takes place on a single green and sunlit afternoon. But no sooner has Neddy set out than Cheever starts to play with your perceptions, and the hero’s. Why are so many trees turning brown? What’s with the FOR SALE sign on the home of Neddy’s friends? Has Neddy been swimming for an hour, or for years? Welcome to the parallel universe of the drunk, where the strangest things happen during blackouts.

Ever the optimist, Neddy can’t understand why a neighbour expresses sympathy for his recent unspecified misfortunes and the terrible fate of his children. Or why his presumed inferiors are so bitter when he crashes their party. Or why his former mistress won’t give him a drink. Neddy, once bursting with grandiosity, has become pathetically clueless—not to mention weak, cold and aging by the minute. Yet Cheever makes his mounting despair so urgent and real that your heart goes out to him anyway. At least mine does when Neddy finally arrives at his house. There he faces the wreckage of the life that never confined this boyish good-time guy and now denies him shelter. By this time you’ve foreseen the ending; it’s been lying in wait all along, exquisitely prefigured by details set like jewels.

I must have read “The Swimmer” dozens of times, and each time I’m astonished all over again that John Cheever could create a work of such beauty and order—a fictional fugue—from the terminal disorder of alcoholism.

Cheever once wrote, “Wisdom we know is the knowledge of good and evil—not the strength to choose between the two.” My father never did find the strength to choose a life without drinking, but he grappled every day with good and evil during his 12-step years. As I now do, cold sober.

While writing about Neddy Merrill, I thought for the first time in years of Dylan Thomas’s poem about the boys of summer. (Maybe John Cheever was thinking of it, too.) Click here to read it. As for Raymond Carver’s drinking years, I wish I could show you his poem “The Car,” but the one I could find online is “Drinking while Driving” (click here). Click here to read a previous post about alcoholism in my family.

Posted by Rona

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