This post was originally published on June 9, 2016.
Confession time: I have a serious book-buying problem. It’s never come with the consequences or soul-shattering fallout that my drinking problem did, but it’s three times older than my battle with the bottle. My shelves are crowded with more books that I’ll ever read in my lifetime: hundreds of paperbacks, autographed editions, gently read classics, high-minded sci-fi, low-brow trash, biographies, short story collections, anthologies and every single James Bond novel ever published. Whenever I move, my boxes of books are the real back-breakers. Still, I keep collecting. I have zero control when I’m let loose in a used bookstore. I once made the mistake of wandering around Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, which encompasses an entire city block. I bought more books than I could bring home in my suitcase.
I’ve collected books for as long as I can remember. I was a weird little kid who trolled my hometown’s junk shop, sifting through its attic of silverfished hardcovers and musty paperbacks for treasure. I’m told that my first word was “book,” but I don’t know if that’s actually true. I loved just being around books—I found comfort in leather covers and dust jackets. Amazon and Half.com became my frenemy because when you’re a bibliophile in a blackout, Amazon’s 1-click ordering option is dangerous.
What’s ironic is that the more I drank, the less I actually read any of the books in my library. The only things I was reading were the sultry adjectives used on beer labels. I came to like the idea of books—they simply carried a pleasant weight in the background of my vodka-steeped life. When I was first sober—unemployed, nothing but time, moods seesawing from delirious highs to despondent lows—I turned to my books. I saw them fresh and anew. They weren’t props, they weren’t for show. I just pulled a book down off the shelf and started reading. I’d forgotten the simple pleasure of it. It felt like I was exercising a muscle that hadn’t been used in forever. What I found was that there were alcoholic main characters hiding in my bookshelves. They’d been looking at me the whole time—they’d borne silent witness to everything I’d done and said when I was drinking my face off. I was the main character of my own sad, self-involved story—one that was hastily written and unmemorable. As such, here are ten novels with alcoholic main characters whose struggles are as well-written as they are achingly familiar to me.
1) The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
It’s a twisty ride but, in hindsight, I found it more interesting in the way it’s told than the story itself. Still, it’s an entertaining and effective thriller—especially in how Rachel Watson, one of its three main characters, is a broken alcoholic in her early 30s. Often told from her hazy, blurred point of view, her drinking clouds the details around what may be the murder of someone she’s only seen from the window of her commuter train—and her role in it. I’m not saying I’ve ever been involved in a murderous web of lies, but I have been obsessed with keeping up appearances and oftentimes fascinated to discover that nothing is ever what it seems.
2) The Shining & Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Much has been written over the years on how the 1977 horror classic is really about Jack Torrance’s alcoholic descent into madness at the empty Overlook Hotel in Colorado—not to mention King’s own personal demon-wrestling. I was primed to dislike the 2013 sequel, Doctor Sleep, but it somehow makes The Shining feel more complete and, well, human. While it still invokes all of the original’s hallmarks—telepathy, ghosts, premonitions—it also feels somehow authentic. Jack’s son Danny (now an adult) spends time in very real AA rooms and battles his alcoholism as much as he does the book’s immortal villains.
3) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
It’s hard to believe Hemingway’s novel (and my favorite of his) came out in 1926. It seems so much immediate to me than that. We follow Jack Barnes, an alcoholic writer living in Paris, as he and other rich expats drink their way across France and Spain. In fact, alcohol could easily be its own character in this sprawling travelogue populated with many colorful characters. The novel never loses sight of the thing that’s fueling their adventures, arguments and animosity: booze.
4) Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien
John O’Brien’s novel is a how-to guide on how to be a suicidal alcoholic. Its main character, Ben, selects Las Vegas as the perfect place to die since the bars in Vegas never close. It’s a journey punctuated by anxiety, blackouts and the eventual drain-circling of Ben, who’s entered into a thorny relationship with Vegas prostitute Sera. If you think you should skip the book because you’ve already seen the movie, think again: it contains some of the finest, most haunting prose about career alcoholism ever written.
5) You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
A British Medical Journal study took on the task of trying to figure out just how much of an alcoholic James Bond really was in Ian Fleming’s novels. (Researchers concluded that, in reality, 007 would die at age 56 from his boozing.) The book where Bond descends into depression, goes to Japan, becomes an amnesiac, and is presumed dead by the world is also Bond’s booziest: he downs over 220 drinks in the novel. It’s truly unsettling to think about how many times he’s saved the world while hungover.
6) A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
Hard-boiled crime fiction really isn’t my thing, but someone recommended this book early on in my sobriety. It simply gets “the rooms” right, not to mention all the little details about 12-step recovery. It doesn’t trivialize AA. As newly sober detective Matt Scudder tries to uncover the truth about the murder of one of his childhood friends, novelist Block ends up revealing a lot more about AA culture and recovery than I expected he would. (In a good way.)
7) Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
Alan Blair is a thirtysomething alcoholic novelist who’s been in and out of rehab. In the hands of humorist Jonathan Ames, Blair is a hilarious comic protagonist who keeps getting in his own way. Rich and able to do whatever he wants (including hire a man-servant named Jeeves), Alan goes on a delirious, over-the-top ride that doesn’t deal with recovery so much as serve as an example of what not to do—and who not to be.
8) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Published in 1886, it still rings true today: the respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll fights evil urges raging inside him and devises a potion to keep those urges at bay. It, of course, has the opposite effect on Jekyll, unleashing the murderous Edward Hyde. By now, it’s a well-tread tale but, for me, it remains essential reading on alcoholism and how booze always splits people in two.
9) A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Now that the dust has settled on this 2003 “memoir” from James Frey, it’s actually easier to absorb this as a work of fiction given some of its gruesome details. No matter the novel, there are always veins of truth that spider through it and Frey’s addictions—no matter their true depth—undoubtedly ring true. (Most novels don’t invite a very public lashing by Oprah Winfrey, either.)
10) Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
I was randomly assigned this novel in college and immediately thought, “Huh. Why didn’t we get On the Road instead?” I didn’t even know Kerouac had written anything else. This novel, however, is a thinly veiled account of Kerouac’s final act in life: his inability to cope with success and shuttering himself in a cabin in Big Sur, California. It’s a full-on confessional of his own mental breakdown as he plunges ever further into alcoholic madness. The book is full of some of the most harrowing descriptions of alcoholism ever put to paper, including withdrawal: “The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, […] , you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness.” It’s also probably worth noting that Kerouac drank himself to death.