The Recovering by Leslie Jamison review – on giving up booze

This much-touted literary love letter to Alcoholics Anonymous is too moral in its argument for the superiority of the sober

Leslie Jamison’s narrative ode to Alcoholics Anonymous was written during a calm era (the Obama years) when getting sober may have seemed prudent and wise, but it is published, alas, at a time when intoxication is, if not prudent, at least sometimes necessary.

It might have been almost amusing to get sober under Obama, with the sun shining cheerfully every day (but never burning too hot, contained as it then was under the hopeful rubric of a climate agreement with no less glamorous a provenance than Paris). With the Orange Menace raising holy hell, a stiff drink or two before noon is practically de rigueur. Or anyway, sober though you may choose to be, a little sympathy for the intoxicated among us is surely in order with nuclear holocaust and a dozen other rotating global and national crises on the horizon.

But not for Jamison: she believes in sobriety, then and now. Over the course of 500-plus pages, she argues for the superiority of the sober. Only in a little author’s note tacked on to the end of the book does she allow that “still using” isn’t (quite) a moral failure and that “Every addict is … always, still, someone in the midst of a valuable human life.” Of course cats and goldfish and quartz crystals are valuable too, but some are more valuable than others.

The Recovering is like a long, slow-motion film clip of the author drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid: she starts out a good-time gal who likes to drink and have sex and go to parties with people who also like to drink and have sex. As she raises the tiny metaphorical paper cup with the fatal fluid toward her mouth, the mood darkens: she drinks too much and too often; she’s a mess; she gets into bed with a man she’s not all that interested in, but she’s too drunk to stand up and walk away; she regrets it. The mood darkens further: the cup connects to her lips; she drinks. She bottoms out.

And then … sunshine makes its way through the clouds. And she’s a believer – really a believer; in the end she flies to the west coast to visit the grave of the AA-redeemed Raymond Carver, who had said in a sober poem that in sobriety he was “increased” by “loving rivers … Loving them all the way back / To their source”. She explains: “For Carver, loving rivers back to their source was a way of surrendering himself to something larger than he could properly understand – the palpable splendour and awe of the world itself. And I loved Carver back to his sources as well, reaching for the myths of sobriety once I got sober – just as I’d reached for the myths of drinking when I drank. I turned sober Carver into another Higher Power – with surging rivers for veins, casting lines to hook the blooded fish of his stories.”

Taking a minority stance among writers, Jamison agrees with Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow and muse of sobriety, that the late, relatively sober work (that unbesmirched by Gordon Lish’s editing) is far better than the earlier stories (those Lish had radically refashioned – the ones that had made Carver so famous). Jamison mentions having heard that Gallagher, herself a well-known poet, “still got what she called the Cyclops: an egg on a pancake” at the local diner, but oddly enough she doesn’t report having met her, or even having attempted to meet her. Instead, Jamison seeks merely to find “diner waitresses who would remind me of Carver’s diner waitresses, with twin pulses of cynicism and hope running through the varicose veins beneath their panty hose”.

Jamison travels to far-flung places in her search for the superiority of sobriety: to Iowa, to Kentucky, to Amsterdam, to Los Angeles, to Wyoming (“in a room thick with Marlboro smoke, a 20-year-old with a two-year-old said she wanted to become a geologist”), to Boston (“On Thanksgiving, a woman said she’d tried to kill herself, three years ago that day, and it hadn’t worked, and here she was”), to Portland and Minneapolis and the “open country of Texas”, to the memory of Billie Holiday handcuffed to her Manhattan hospital deathbed, and finally to Carver’s river in Washington; and “the journey was just beginning”.

The first chapters are relatively rollicking and fun (that’s when everybody drank), but by the time we get to the inevitable Homecoming, the final, most sober chapter, the writing seems, paradoxically, to almost slur its speech and to fall into a kind of weird, embarrassing blend of nostalgia, sentimentality and idol worship with the unlikeliest of idols – such as Carver, his last-decade sobriety softened by pot and braced by cocaine, but no longer a drinking drunk, which is good enough for Jamison because his work, for her, got better. The Recovering tells the well-known drinking stories of other writers too, but unlike Carver, most of them don’t turn out so sober or productive.

Jean Rhys just keeps drinking and writes her best book drunk. John Berryman writes part of a bad novel about getting sober and kills himself. Charles Jackson, author of the swashbuckling drinking novel The Lost Weekend, wrote part of a sober counterpart called What Happened, which Jamison describes as “a tedious, convoluted narrative” and “hopelessly abstract”. He killed himself at 65. Jamison offers a remarkably wilful reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a postmodern rehab memoir: “I read Infinite Jest like a desperate old man running his metal detector over the sand, waiting for every ding that signified buried wisdom.” Its author, too, was an alcoholic and drug addict with severe depression, who took his own life. He was 46.

Ray Milland in the Billy Wilder film of The Lost Weekend (1945).
Ray Milland in the Billy Wilder film of The Lost Weekend (1945). Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Jamison is a literary writer and recovering alcoholic (in the story of her own drinking and getting sober the “anonymous” part of AA has been curiously sloughed off), with a bestseller under her belt, a big advance for the new book, a teaching job at Columbia and so on. The Recovering was begun as her doctoral thesis, so it’s been lovingly scrubbed and polished for years. There is very little about drug addiction in the book; it’s almost entirely focused on booze (and the absence thereof). So if a sincere white woman’s literary love letter to AA is what you’re craving, this is your book. Jamison’s love life is a secondary thread, but the love she describes is stymied, first by her drunkenness and then by her sobriety. “Things don’t always get better,” she was once told at an Iowa meeting, “but they always get different.”

The Recovering was written with honourable intentions, no doubt, but its author seems blind to a fundamentalism that reckons sobriety an absolute good and intoxication a sure sign of weakness. Jamison is increasingly pious, and pious against her own better judgment. She pays lip service to the progressive view that sobriety isn’t for everyone, but she’s a missionary who wants to bring the light to people living in darkness, to help them out of their illness and misery. (For a harrowing book that really does shed light on addiction and also provides real insight into working compassionately and effectively with addicts, try In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, a Canadian doctor whose thankless work and superb writing are gritty, risky, revelatory and inspiring. Jamison mentions it twice, but says almost nothing about it.) She acknowledges that drinking was more fun than being sober (“drinking was plush and forgiving. It sparkled like backyard fireflies”), but she has the conviction deep down in her heart that there are more important things in life than having fun. The problem is, she doesn’t prove it. No one ever has.

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath is published by Granta. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Rick Whitaker

The GuardianTramp

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