Novels on the rocks

These messy, heartbreaking, and sometimes hilarious stories about alcoholics aren’t at all dry

Ah, alcohol and the writer. Alcohol’s liquid influence seeps through the pages of volumes of American literature. To date, five of the seven Americans who have won the Nobel prize for literature were known to be serious, if not deadly, drinkers.

But it’s not just writers who drink. Their characters often do, too. Sometimes, that’s simply because their creators are writing what they know. However, as the authors of three recent alcohol-centered novels can attest, an intoxicated protagonist also can be a very useful literary device. The three books in question are A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise, Lydia Millet’s Everyone’s Pretty and Koren Zailckas’ memoir, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. Each was released this spring, and each leans on the support of at least one alcohol-soaked, often manic narrator who propels the story forward with an ethyl-fueled, high-octane running commentary.

The books’ protagonists are wildly different: Kennedy presents us with a middle-class, middle-aged British woman in Paradise. Millet’s main character in Everyone’s Pretty is a down-and-out, porn-addled would-be messiah. In Smashed, being a memoir, Zailckas presents us with herself, or a version of herself, as a college-aged girl with an out-of-control addiction. But, despite varying outward appearances, at bottom these characters are all drunks. And if you’ve ever known any drunks, you know that that they share qualities with other drunks, no matter their shape or stripe.

Under the influence of alcohol, the drinker is cordoned off, isolating and internalizing his or her thought process. When interaction with the outside world is short-circuited by intoxication, the books’ protagonists automatically turn back upon themselves for company, solace, and intelligent observation. Alcohol handily induces that loop the loop, internal dialogue that is endlessly possible and self-riveting. And, of course, being drunk makes the characters infinitely more certain that they possess a keen eye and flinty mind.

As Millet explained in a recent interview, “I think writers are drawn to devices like drunkenness because altered states give us a ‘get out of jail free’ pass from realism. We can play fast and loose with diction, with emotion, and with ideas.”

Under the influence of alcohol, awkwardness and uncertainty give way to a kind of beatific self-confidence—seemingly almost divinely delivered. It could be argued that a smart, motor-mouthed character—who is also a drunk—is the perfect omniscient narrator. Take Hannah Luckraft, the middle-aged British alcoholic in A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise. She is a clever but stifled woman, bogged down in work, bewitched in love, and, bafflingly, rarely sober. Her insobriety is baffling only because she has none of the requisite historical baggage to compel her toward it. Her childhood was uneventful and her family is stolid, supportive and steadfast. She simply seems to have been born to alcoholism.

Hannah is terrifyingly conscious, which may be part of her problem, but also the source of a cure. She is acutely aware of the despair she causes her family. And, like all unhappy drunks, she seeks redemption.

In her pursuit of paradise, Hannah passes through 14 discrete stages, from debasement to redemption—modeled on the Christian catechism of the 14 Stations of the Cross. As Kennedy explained in a recent interview, every division in the novel fits with “an element of Christ’s passion, like the third fall or the nailing of the cross … I was going for a kind of secular self-martyrdom.”

Kennedy described the state of someone who drinks in excess as “a little field of insanity, completely impenetrable.” Drinking and musing gives Hannah plenty to time to dwell out loud for the reader as to the visceral details of her life. All she needs is an attractive, captive audience, which she discovers in fellow drunk Robert Gardener. For a time, the two reach a kind of artificial holiness, a seeming state of grace with each other, but it is violently called short. (Not to give away the ending of the book, but if you know your catechism, you know it involves sacrifice and redemption.)

Kennedy’s writing specializes in the twist and torque of the dark side of the human condition. Her characters prickle with hyper-awareness, and Hannah drinks, as many do, to blanket the white noise of her consciousness. In all of Kennedy’s books, there is at least one character burdened with extreme sensitivity. It is a quality that allows Kennedy to channel what she is best at: searing, poetic observation about human nature, the fallibility, and the possibility, of every human being.

In contrast, Lydia Millet’s Everyone’s Pretty is a free-falling romp of a black comedy. The main character, Dean Decetes, is an alcoholic pornographer with delusions of Christhood. He acquires a dutiful disciple in the form of a mentally challenged midget who accompanies Dean on his liquor-fueled careening through the streets of Los Angeles. Dean’s God-obsessed sister, Bucella, lives in a state of perpetual horror at the obscene shenanigans of her brother, that is, when she is not cluelessly scheming to romance her gay boss. Weaving in and out of their orbit is Barbara, an attractive, drifting, sometime alcoholic co-worker of Bucella’s. And then there is Ginny, the genius nymphet next door.

During the course of the novel, this cast of oddballs and lowlifes goes through a kind of fiery baptism and emerges in a state of relative redemption. Everyone’s Pretty is reminiscent of a Robert Crumb cartoon strip. Dean’s character (rumored to be based on Millet’s encounters during a brief editorial stint at Hustler magazine) is bawdy but also painful. You find yourself wincing at his outright grossness. And yet, he is acrobatic, even disarming, in his resourceful resistance to reform.

“The only real demand for any writer anytime is to be compelling, so if you’re going to write a drunk, write a compelling drunk,” Millet said. “Most real drunks are a bore to the rest of us, detached, self-absorbed, blunted rather than inspired. Serious drunks don’t produce the kind of sublime poetry of experience that literary drunks do—with a few major historical counterexamples, of course.”

But what about a drunk who is both real and a literary character, as in Koren Zailckas’ memoir, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood? Like Paradise’s Hannah, Zailckas presents herself as a sharp girl with too-thin skin. She seems to move through the world a little more easily with the soothing lubricant of booze. And like Hannah, her sexuality is defined and dependent on alcohol. Without it, she cannot access that part of herself.

Zailckas does a dexterous job of describing the attractions of alcohol, especially to young women. The book starts out almost as a love song to alcohol. Of course, the romance sours as the story quickly progresses from a nasty scare of teenage alcohol overdose to round-the-clock college binging. Zailckas is exceptionally honest, insightful and raw about her motivations for being drunk. In describing the ritual of sorority drinking, she notes that “so many of us crave this type of humiliation by drinking. Maybe it’s because, for some girls, drinking is a scarily intense need: if not a physiological need, than certainly a mental and emotional one.”

For Zailckas, alcohol is love and sex. When she first starts drinking alcohol in high school, she describes it as the “closest thing to a summer fling … I loved it instantly. Then circumstance separated us … Tasting alcohol just once is as hopeful and as heartbreaking as kissing a boy just once … I can’t imagine a way to rendezvous with alcohol again.”

Smashed also shows insight into the differences between men and women drinkers. “Drinking confirms men’s gender role, whereas it diminishes women’s. We are meant to believe that men who drink heavily are men’s men … By contrast, a girl’s drinking makes her less feminine.”

At the start of Smashed, drinking provides the fuel, the zip, and the often urgent, manic drive of the author’s voice. Then there is a kind of winding down at the end, both in pace and tone, as the author becomes overburdened with the habit of boozing. Finally, Zailckas figures out that drinking will drive away everyone and everything good in her life; only the damaged ones, like her, will stick around.

Though these three alcohol-soaked novels range from tragic to comic, all ultimately proffer a morality and end on a teetering note of sobriety and redemption. Here’s to second chances.