Now that I am very grown-up and mature (nothing to do with the fact that I never actually go out anymore and thus have no tolerance whatsoever for alcohol), watching drunk people behave in drunken ways is not something that appeals to me. Yes, I will guzzle Jack and Cokes at a wedding reception and find myself suddenly capable of talking to other humans, but that is, these days, the full extent of my relationship with booze. In ‘Drinking in America’ (Twelve Books, October 2015), Susan Cheever achieves something quite monumental, which is to actually make me interested in the lives and actions of people who drink too much, and the impact their drinking has.
I came to ‘Drinking in America’ via an article by Cheever in The Guardian, and was drawn to her book because she heavily referenced another non-fiction work I’ve really enjoyed this year – Olivia Laing’s ‘The Trip to Echo Spring.’ Where Laing focused specifically on writers – including Cheever’s father, John – ‘Drinking in America’ takes a broader approach, beginning with the voyage of the Mayflower and taking in the Civil War, expansion into the West and Prohibition, as well as JFK’s assassination. Despite my fascination with America, much of what Cheever covers here was new to me, and I found the discussion of major historical events through the prism of alcoholism absorbing. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that so many of the USA’s presidents have experienced alcohol addiction, given the pressures of the job and the lack of superior powers telling them not to drink, but I was equally fascinated by the other ways in which drinking has impacted on the nation’s history, from outcry against taxation of whiskey under Washington, to the continuing problem of alcohol abuse in the military.
Susan Cheever discusses personal experiences of alcoholism, encompassing her own struggles and those of her famous father, although these references are brief and set against the backdrop of a wider narrative. Cheever writes that “the Cheevers, for instance, are a family with all the distinction, myth, talent and destruction that alcoholism entails,” and uses her own family history to draw compelling conclusions about the effects of alcoholism beyond the alcoholic.
One of the sad things about alcoholic families – and there is plenty of sadness underlying these fancy stories – is the way in which the swashbuckling, derring-do, glamour and mischief of the family stories (he pulled the wigs right off the barristers’ heads!) – actually hides or mitigates the awful truth. Whether they are Cheevers or Adamses or whoever, alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.
Cheever moves seamlessly from social commentary – for example, discussion of the impact of alcoholism on Native American communities, something I have previously read about in Sherman Alexie’s work – to specific, human stories. The extended narrative of the Adams clan is instilled with tremendous pathos, as is the brief section on Frederick Douglass, who asserted that alcohol gave slaveholders a further means of controlling and subjugating their slaves.
The section of ‘Drinking in America’ which resonated most with me was the chapter entitled, ‘The Writer’s Vice,’ in which Cheever offers her interpretation of the apparent link between creative power and substance abuse. She establishes the well-worn fact that “all five of our twentieth-century literature Nobel laureates were alcoholics – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.” Later, Cheever makes the valid point that, perhaps the intrinsic link between booze and books is a self-perpetuating viewpoint; that it is partly because of the focus on the same alcoholic writers that the idea that all writers drink has been sustained. Her discussion of writers is bound up with that of Prohibition, calling to mind Sarah Churchwell’s ‘Careless People,’ which explored at length the antics of F. Scott Fitzgerald and co. during the period.
By making alcohol forbidden, Prohibition increased its appeal for American writers. Writers are outlaws. Outlawing liquor gave it a delicious cachet. Part of a writer’s job is to question conventional wisdom and illegal gin had a magnetism that legal gin lacked.
In distilling American history through the filter of the country’s relationship with alcohol, Cheever has written something truly captivating. The links made here between the temperance movement and women’s suffrage are just another richly explored area which make ‘Drinking in America’ such compulsive reading. Cheever’s prose style is factual but often reflective and figurative, with personal experience and extensive research marrying to form something that I feel privileged to have read.