Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Sideways Review: Reading Drunk

Hollie Loveless
Augusten Burroughs’
Dry: A Memoir
Bill Clegg’s
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,
and Caroline Knapp’s
Drinking: A Love Story


Six years before she died at age forty-two, Caroline Knapp wrote in her memoir that “In Vodka Veritas.” This truth in alcohol is exactly what I was looking for—literarily, not literally. I began to read memoirs by alcoholics or addicts who included alcohol in their numbing repertoire. Why? Probably because since I’ve been sober, reading “Alky Lit” is the closest I can get to drunk.

As you can see from the chart below, which I’ll refer to mercilessly in this review, I will compare Dry by Augusten Burroughs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, and my own unfinished memoir-in-progress. Specifically, I will focus on the expressive, external details through which these writers reveal the inner turmoil of their narrators in their most drunken moments.

Consider the following excerpt from Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Dry:

I walk over to the window. It’s floor-to-ceiling and I bring my hand to the glass. Although I can see the ripple, I can’t touch it. The glass feels smooth, solid and cool. Yet I know glass is a liquid, always in motion.

Once I accidentally cut my wrist on a broken glass in the sink. How can a person slice their wrist with liquid? It’s incomprehensibly brilliant and clever, glass.

The narrator, Augusten Burroughs, is high on crack and drunk when he offers the above insight. His amazement at the brilliance and cleverness of glass runs parallel to his surprise at liquid’s propensity for destruction. The window seems like glass, but it’s really liquid, just as alcohol seems like merely a drink, merely liquid, and yet it’s poison, eroding his judgment, his career, his health, and his sense of self-worth. Further, this destructive nature disguised in a clever facade (glass that can cut as liquid) mirrors Burroughs himself. He is smart, accomplished, and yet he keeps surprising himself and his readers with new ways of destroying himself. Here, at this window, he’s near his bottom (see “Low Point” in the chart). The author has done what memoirist Sue Silverman says in Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir that she seeks to do with her own writing: “Imbue . . . abstraction with concrete details.”

This crack binge was a one-time-deal for Burroughs. Not the case for Bill Clegg. In his story, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Clegg gets high more times than a 747 over Christmas holidays. However, like Burroughs, Clegg makes deft use of external modifiers that illuminate the complicated dynamics of addiction. While Burroughs reflects his narrator’s internal workings through the external description of the window, in Portrait, Clegg reveals his dire state by describing a shopping bag.

[A]s she pulls out the bag that has the words Christopher Fischer scrawled across its meridian, I look around the store. Where once it had a sleek impenetrable chic, it now has a slapped-together, flimsy quality. The bag looks odd, too thick, too bright, too big, as if it were a prop bag for some off-Broadway play that involved shopping. The opal-eyed woman folds the sweater in a confection of tissue, places it in the phony bag, and hands me my receipt.

In the latter stages of another unraveling (see “Relapse”), with his clothes dirty from days of wear and sleep without going home to change, Clegg’s character shops for a new sweater. Notice the lack of weighty exposition in the above excerpt and how much the author reveals—not just an awareness of change with regard to his character’s perception of a clothing store but an awareness of change with regard to himself. He used to be a polished, Gucci-suit-wearing, well-connected literary agent (see “Profession”). Now, in the story, he is emaciated and dirty. The only thing that separates him from his “friend” Rosie, a homeless crackhead, is that she lives on the streets and he has enough money to live at the Soho Grande. The key detail the author Clegg chooses for the shopping bag—“phony”—underlies what Clegg’s character is himself becoming. No longer the debonair hipster, he is a junkie—depleted and empty and so thin that he can’t keep his jeans up—only a prop to suggest what he used to be.

So, what detail does Caroline Knapp choose in Drinking: A Love Story to mirror her grappling with vice—that is, aside from (See “Preferred Drink”) her favorite scotch? Noise, of all things. Hers is the least tangible of the externally detailed items up for bid, but it works in the same way as those that are more concrete. She writes the following, describing a bar down the street from her office:

The place was an exercise in sensory overload: a jukebox blared, and a Pac-Man table beeped and hummed, and a giant video screen suspended over one side of the bar showed movies, usually with the volume up way too loud.

For some reason I liked all the competing noises.

In the same way the various bar sounds ease the awkwardness Knapp might have felt sitting alone at the bar (see “Social or Solo Drinker”), alcohol also serves as noise. It keeps the narrator from delving too deeply into her real thoughts or fears and makes her feel safe. Just like alcohol, noise is a distraction from reality; they are both forms of escape.

In my own untitled memoir, in the scene that follows, I am keen on escape. My husband is perturbed with me for not coming home the night before, an event I unsuccessfully chalk up to “work.”

“Nothing good ever happens after eleven o’clock at night. You said that to me once and it’s true,” [my husband] added. He grabbed a plastic cup filled with water and ice, wiggled it to loosen up the cubes, drank. He ground the pieces in his teeth and then swallowed.

I stared into the oleander bushes over his right shoulder. They sprawled in a corner flowerbed of our lot, upward, outward, and onto the surrounding fence. Pressing arms and buds through the wrought iron rails and into the beyond, they looked intent on escape.

The slow description of my husband drinking water, particularly how he “ground the pieces in his teeth” was written to evoke a sense of discomfort, maybe even pain, in the mind of the reader. Hopefully, the reader understands that my narrator was feeling a little ground herself. And I felt trapped, just like the oleander bushes that “looked intent on escape.”

Knapp says, “In Vodka Veritas,” but the meaning in these memoirs extends beyond Alky Lit. In showing how we overcame the pitfalls of addiction, Burroughs, Clegg, Knapp, and I happened onto something bigger. Poet and memoirist Mark Doty explains in The Art of Description: World into Word, “The mind playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking.” These memoirs prove that the unravelings of lives can eventually, through carefully crafted writing, be rewoven into great tapestry, maybe even art. Hey, it’s not a dry martini with two olives, but sometimes, you just have to make do.


Hollie Loveless is an MFA student in creative nonfiction at VCFA. Poetry and fiction still befuddle her. Alcohol, however, does not. 

Dry: A Memoir
Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin’s
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man
Bill Clegg
Little, Brown and Company

Drinking: A Love Story
Caroline Knapp
Dial Press



More Sideways Reviews

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheila Stuewe March 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Great insight into writing about addiction. Brave and thoughtful – I’ll be returning to this entry often.


Jen Cohen March 22, 2012 at 9:03 am

Provocative essay that asks great questions about substance and creativity.


Hollie Loveless March 23, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Thanks all. I’m grateful to Richard McCann for making me read all that alky lit! Glad you enjoyed the outcome.


Melissa Cronin March 25, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for sharing, Hollie. Great writing – precise, interesting, and important. Kudos to you!


Mandy Holland April 17, 2012 at 4:11 am

I’m so proud of you. This is absolutely fantastic and brave.


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