Two Books About Drinkers
by A. L. Kennedy
by Koren Zailckas
(Viking Adult) $21.95
Toward the end of every Northwest winter, I read everything that I can about alcoholism. I do it as a kind of penance for the long and embarrassing weeks before, hoping that someone can shed some light on the culture of drinking, which I'm deeply involved in December through March. The problem is that most writing about alcohol is horrible--there is, right now, a very bad book about drinking on the nonfiction bestseller charts.* I was hoping to find something a little more reasonable to end my penitential yearly quest, a drunk book that is at least not extremely bad, and so by chance I picked up A. L. Kennedy's Paradise. It will, presumably, barring some miraculous new Nabokov, be the best novel I read this year.
Paradise's main character, Hannah, wakes up on the first page after a blackout and begins, with patience and self-effacing humor, to piece together her previous day. She is a 40-year-old functioning alcoholic and cardboard box saleswoman who has long since undergone the weird biological transformation wherein alcohol becomes as necessary to a person as oxygen. With the childlike novelty that each new bender inspires, she provides commentary, as though to a willing student. She appraises her own drinker's smile, that leopard grin of getting-away-with-it. She coaches on the misfortunes of drinking cough syrup to achieve furtive, churchgoing drunkenness. She opens her heart, and so the heart of the novel, in one glorious, mad sentence that twists and slices both itself and the universe in half, to better examine the rot inside: "God, my personal God--you can have whatever kind you want, but this is mine--sometimes He tilts up His hat and sips crimson smoke from His tight, non-tobacco cigar--which is an affectation, He doesn't like cigars, only wishes to underline for you the miracle of His breath--and He feels in the pockets of His old, linen suit for something He has misplaced and then He pauses, gives a milk and azure sigh, and considers all Creation, directing--just for a moment--one mountainous thought towards you, before He wanders on, still searching in His pockets, and you are left with a proof of His interest heading your way: His appalling love."
The thing that A. L. Kennedy (a Scottish author of 10 books, most popular in the U.S. for the nonfiction On Bullfighting) allows Hannah is that which is most important to alcoholics: dignity. Every true alcoholic believes that they are maintaining a proper public face, that they are fooling everyone. Hannah is not tragic: She is doing what she needs to survive, and she believes, heartbreakingly, that she is getting away with it.
It's when Hannah falls in love with Robert, an alcoholic dentist, that the book really begins to take shape, because if there's one thing true about love, it's that in our lovers' eyes, we are affectionately stripped of whatever dignity (as well as whatever falsity) we may parade for the world. Hannah and Robert drink across Great Britain and, in their haze, they are continually--and literally--finding and losing each other.
When Robert goes missing and Hannah goes searching for him, whatever dignity she still possesses goes spiraling. The novel becomes a terrorscape and begins to act the way a few stiff drinks act on the brain: The writing becomes ambiguous, with bolts of pure pleasure, and everything seems to slide and fall apart, leaving Hannah with the decision that all drunks have to make sooner or later. Does she try to glue the world into a modicum of normalcy, or does she degenerate, blissfully, into the kind of alcoholic vampire that makes pedestrians avert their eyes?
There are no false notes to report: The book is whole, beautiful, and it somehow unites its firmament of starry passages into something that pulses and glows like the living. Even this year, strangely blessed with many good books, Paradise stands as a masterpiece.