Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Alcoholic: A mundane intoxication

We’ve all got a September 11 story in us. It’s just a shame that most of them aren’t worth telling.

It’s not just the published stories that merge into some giant perception, it’s the tale we all have – where were you on that day? What did you do? What did you see?

Some fell into a catatonic emotional funk that lasted a long, long time. Lots of people gave blood. Many didn’t move from the television. Some went out and bought Tomb of Dracula comics. Life went on, eventually.

It's not a good idea to read too many of the tribute comics published in the year after that horrible day. Not in a row. It all gets a bit much and while the odd beautiful gem can be found in the tedium, most of the stories are painfully forgettable.

The Alcoholic – by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel – is the fairly typical story of somebody who drinks their way through the worst life has to throw at them, mixing profound regrets with a shot of vodka and hoping for some brief oblivion.

An unashamedly autobiographical story, The Alcoholic sees 'Jonathan A' go through that first sweet phase of booze infatuation, enjoying the freedom of a teenage drinker, willing to accept the cost of incessant puking. He grows out of that phase, but keeps falling back into the bottle as romance and friendships move into uncomfortable territories.

And then there is September 11, which consumes a massive section of the story. Like the rest of us, the events took Johnny A by surprise and his life in New York turns into a harrowing experience over the following days, as he comforts and aids the woman next door who lost her husband in the tragedy.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this digression into Ames’ experiences during those dreadful days. His numbed reaction is hardly unique and while dealing with somebody who has been directly affected by the attack is something many readers would not have experienced, Ames never really gets beyond a “this sucks” level.

And his whole life story runs along similar lines – a childhood friendship is shattered by intimacy issues, loved ones are snatched away by mundane tragedy and Jonathan A slips into emotional degredation as relationships fall apart.

It’s all vaguely interesting, but never compelling. There are odd pieces of interest, including Ames' impressive ability to have a boozed up party with a bunch of girls he’s supposed to be teaching, but even this just leads to another low point which Johnny vows he will never reach again.

The book is an attractive package, with Haspiel’s fine and clean art giving the story an energy it doesn’t always deserve, while grounding the story squarely in the real world. Ames does genuinely care about the people in his life story and unlike a lot of novelists, he does have an excellent sense of comic pacing and some fine dialogue, and does come up with a killer punchline on the last page.

But it’s nothing new. Nothing that stands out from the multitude of booze-soaked writings that have appeared over the centuries. In his youth, Jonathon A dreams of being Jack Kerouac or Hunter S Thompson or Ernest Hemmingway, some of literature’s great drunks who have gone off and had adventures, only to return with glimpses at the raw side of the human condition.

But the hero of The Alcoholic doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything particularly remarkable. He muddles around a bit and ends up stuck in his rut. The book’s back-cover blurb might promise something “in the proud tradition of drunken writers everywhere”, but it’s more like being stuck at the bar with a boring old maudlin drunk who doesn’t realise he’s boring the piss out of you.

1 comment:

David Robertson said...

Funnily enough, Haspiel's own 911 inspired 2-pager was really good.