THE ALCOHOLIC isn’t the first time that author Jonathan Ames has cast himself as the lead in one of his stories. It’s a regular motif of his novels and essays, which have always bent the truth and gleamed the surface of truth in wildly inventive ways. This is simply Ames’s latest reimagining of himself, and it’s a taut, rambling, compulsively readable journey into the mind not only of an addict but of a pain-filled young man still searching for resolution.
Make no mistake, THE ALCOHOLIC is most definitely a novel, even though it reads like a tell-all memoir. Then again, who’s to say how truthful Ames is being within its pages? Did he have these misadventures or just invent them? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t just a personal journey of self-discovery for the author; it’s a chance for the reader to relate to a complex, utterly confusing yet lovable human being with no shortage of troubles.
The fictional Jonathan, who narrates, relates his life story, from his teenage years with his best friend, Sal, with whom he had his first drink, up through his 40s, in which he is trying to make sense of it all. At 15, Jonathan and Sal have their first sexual experience with each other, setting up a paradigm for Jonathan’s life: He’s straight, but he can never quite get to what he wants, never gets the satisfaction he desires and never understands why it eludes his grasp. The sexual frankness of THE ALCOHOLIC is one of the reasons the book is so rich; it’s sometimes shocking but always appropriate. Even when Jonathan is losing yet another job by having an ill-considered tryst with several college coeds, it never crosses the line into prurient territory --- which is not to say that it doesn’t have its graphic moments.
Jonathan faces a horrible array of tragedies and upsets in his life, but perhaps it’s the emotional abandonment he feels after his sexual liaisons that drives him primarily in his life. He is constantly in search of love and acceptance and rarely finds it (the delightful character of his great-aunt is a wonderful exception; she’s a fantastically well-rounded and developed supporting character in a novel that could easily have skipped over her in the hands of a lesser writer).
THE ALCOHOLIC falters only when the events of 9/11 unfold, lingering just slightly too long in a tragedy that doesn’t directly affect the protagonist and doesn’t do enough to advance his story. As Jonathan witnesses the raw pain of his fellow citizens, people who are dealing with terrible loss, it threatens to overwhelm the small story of one man dealing with his own personal demons. Nevertheless, it’s a very slight stumble in a work that encompasses so many years’ worth of pain that it’s hard to believe it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny at points. Ames knows full well the territory he’s mining here, and he does it with such superb genuineness that it effortlessly delivers the reader onto the streets of his protagonist’s life, giving a you-are-there immediacy to the entire work. It would be a crime not to note that its bracing realism is due in large part to the stellar work of artist Dean Haspiel (The Escapist, Billy Dogma). In his hands, the story truly comes to life.
THE ALCOHOLIC is a major accomplishment in every way, a singularly touching book that lingers and resonates.
Reviewed by John Hogan on December 22, 2010