Getting Alcoholism

When I first started writing my newly published novel, What Happens to Us, in 2007, I knew that alcoholism would be a large part of it.  I never had that disease in my immediate family, but it certainly afflicted the extended family.  My Mexican grandfather, my white stepgrandfather, and a host of other cousins and uncles have suffered from it.  But I never felt like I understood the condition in my bones.

Rudy, Jeff, and David drunk twist 1b

That’s when I started to read.  I went through all of Mary Karr (The Liars Club, Lit, Cherry) and I got a whole bunch of theorizing wrapped in great prose.  I read Caroline Knapp’s memoir (Drinking: A Memoir), which was fine, but even more intellectual.  I read a De Nile memoir by Carolyn See (Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America).  I read Raymond Chandler’s memoir (The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Frank McShane), which was mostly about writing, but was the first book that started to give me a real taste of it.

But the memoir that really did the trick was Koren Zailckas’ Smashed.  Essentially, it’s one massive drunken anecdote.  It’s like the author sits down one night and spills her guts on all the crazy, mind-blowing, and self-destructive shit that’s happened to her, like, I’m on the dance floor with a drink in my hand, see, all my sorority sisters around me, and all of the sudden I fall down in my high heels and then I’m’ on the floor and I’m kind of disgusted because someone’s blood is on my face, and then I realize that it’s my own….

No other memoir gave me the firsthand taste and smell of drunkenness.  I could smell the tequila on her breath.  I could see the sweat under her arms.  It was visceral.  Caroline Knapp tipped me off that you’re always waking up in the morning and not knowing where you parked your car.  Raymond Chandler reminded me that drunks have a bad habit of grabbing pistols and pointing them at their heads while tears are streaming down their face.  But Zailckas filled a whole goddamn book with those gory details.

The main alcoholic trick I had to pull off is something I held in my head for years.  Cat, my leading lady, is a recovering alcoholic only nine months sober.  As the novel opens, she’s being chased by a stranger whom she must have met in a drunken blackout because she doesn’t remember him.  Eventually, she breaks free and lives off the grid beneath a tunnel system beneath a university in upstate New York.  She’s safe.  But eventually, she realizes that she must get her life back, because hiding is no life at all.  That’s when she realizes that she must get drunk again.  Whenever she gets drunk, she remembers everything that happened while she was in a blackout.  So thirty pages from the end, she sits in an empty room with her boyfriend Dante, a bottle of Jack Daniels between them, and starts her journey back.  It’s an excruciating scene.

Once Cat is smashed, all hell breaks loose.  You gotta read it to believe it, because these are scenes that I read all those books for.

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15 thoughts on “Getting Alcoholism

  1. Hi What Happens to Us,
    Alcoholism killed my mom, my father-in-law, and ruined my dads health, but it didn’t kill him; because he died of an embolism, but booze kept him in a stupor about 54 years of his life. His famous phrase to me: “You’ve never seen me drunk!” That meant I never had to drag him out of the gutter from somewhere. That was his old idea of drunkenness. He died in 1976 at the age of 72. Eeeegads I made to 77 but I never had more than a few pops now and then. I’m 165 lbs…with little adipose…but diabetes has had me around the throat for several years now which precludes me from indulging in booze. It runs the sugar sky high, and I don’t need that.

    I am planning as of last week to write a fictional novel. Yes, a first time writer/author…horrors… I failed in 1982 with: “The Executive Mating Game.” I wasted many, many hours with publishers, a rep., and committees etc,. I always passed the editorial committees, but failed the marketing guys…too narrow an audience they claimed. Ciao, Charlie

  2. Ohhhhh, I “get” alcoholism. I totally get it. I am completely hypnotized by this blog – you are a world away, but your writing is right around the corner. One day i will be covering alcoholism in my blog. Fortunately or un. I absolutely loved Knapp’s book, (did you read her memoir about her dog?? wonderful). It was the book that seemed to be me. But i read it in my thirties, at atime when i hadn’t realized i officially belonged to that group. Thank you for your writing; i love the latest one about your mother. lovely.

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