'Bottoms Up': Not Just Another Alcoholic Memoir
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“Bottoms Up”: Not Just Another Alcoholic Memoir

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'Bottoms Up': Not Just Another Anonymous MemoirWhile the chapter structure of Bottoms Up (Hotchkiss Publishing, 2016) should be familiar to almost anyone in recovery (“What it Was Like,” “What Happened” and “What it’s Like Now”), the memoir is anything but some color-by-numbers triptych about sobriety. It’s a unique, lively and (at its best) adventurous plunge into alcoholism—and the long, torturous road back. As Paul C. notes from the outset, “I was in trouble with alcohol the summer that I graduated from high school at age 17” and it took him a full 17 years to land in an AA meeting. Though it’s a harrowing journey before we see him there, the reader has a genuine sense of relief when he does finally arrive “home.” The writer paints such a vivid, detailed portrait of his disease that it’s hard not to breathe a little easier, feeling the white-knuckle release when he sits down in AA for the first time.

The vignettes are as brief as they are affecting: one- to two-page glimpses into a beautifully chaotic world, one glimpse colliding headlong into the next. A whirlwind that takes the reader from 1950s New York City, on booze-soaked vacations to Cape Cod, following a dizzying trail of months-old apologies and—finally—gussying up his alcoholism by actually becoming a respected sommelier—all before he arrives in AA. The impetus? He writes, “My wife presented me with a three-page handwritten list (by no means a complete one) highlighting some of the things I had done and failed to do in my drinking career and how she felt about them.” It’s that sort of stark black-and-white reality check that undercuts an otherwise crazy-colorful, sometimes queasy kaleidoscope of full-blown alcoholism.

Bottoms Up doesn’t romanticize AA so much as it spins dark poetry out of the writer’s experiences in the rooms. He’s not quick to pick up all the lingo or bumper-sticker logic, nor does he willingly embrace everything that’s thrown his way. And in many ways, it’s his initial skepticism about AA, especially the fact that he wrestles with whether he’s even an alcoholic to begin with, that’s the most endearing part. Paul C. simply sticks to what’s worked for him and, thanks to the sharpness of his truths, when the words cut, they bleed. For all its self-deprecation and humor, Bottoms Up is also at times jarring and terrifying. It’s a messy portrait of first sponsors, first struggles and first steps, though by the time Paul C. finds left himself unsupervised in an art gallery, trusted to be alone with priceless paintings by the likes of Degas and Picasso, it isn’t just an important emotional milestone for his sobriety—he’s also reached a highwater mark with recovery writing.

While Paul C.’s words are as evocative as the clarity of his message, the story of how his book is reaching new readers is equally fascinating. Publisher Bill Ludwig discussed the book’s journey from manuscript to printed form:

Before we get into Bottoms Up, can you describe how you got involved in publishing?

I have a checkered career. Don’t we all? [Laughs] Well, I was basically a high school dropout who got involved in academic publishing. This guy, Gavin Borden, came to my dad and I. In the late 1960s, the big thing to do was reprint 1800s books to fill up college libraries with classics that were otherwise unavailable. Gavin wanted to start a business and began a 28-year career for me. I was in Connecticut; he was in New York. I had no idea how ridiculous it was the things we were doing. One of our first projects was a set of 18th century English literary criticism. 208 volumes and you had to buy the whole set. [Laughs] And that was getting his toe wet. That was the way Gavin thought. We went on to do other things, like literary manuscripts, reprinted all of Joyce’s scribblings. Byron, Shelly, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. Given the technology today, what we were doing was pretty quick, dirty and crappy compared to what you can do with your iPhone. But he’d dream these things up and I’d have to figure out how the hell to do it.

With Bottoms Up, can you talk me through the process of getting it from manuscript to print?

Well, it was done. [Laughs] It was done and printed before I’d even heard of it. The author was dying from pulmonary fibrosis, so he had a local printer in Adams, MA print up 80 copies. The very next day, he went into hospice and died shortly thereafter.

The very next day?

The very next day. So that left the publishing rights to his ex-wife, Cheryl. And she’s sitting there with all these books—giving some away, selling some, I don’t know—not knowing what the hell to do with them. So, she contacted me. I had to re-arrange it a little bit and do some style things here and there, like adding Cheryl’s introduction and his self-written obituary at the end.

Those are just really beautiful, special inclusions.

Aren’t they? They just make the book different. Her introduction really sets the book in perspective.

What was the first thing that jumped out at you?

What grabbed me was that it grabbed me. [Laughs] He was engaging. I found it humorous in the right places. I’m 20 years in AA myself, so I can identify very much on a human level and as an alcoholic.

I was describing this book to someone recently and the word that came to mind was “easy.” His writing style is almost effortless. He’s not trying to sit you down and preach anything.

Yeah! It’s almost conversational. He has a terrific degree of honesty here that’s throughout the book. It just comes through very clearly. He’s like my cousin Sandy Beach. Are you familiar with him?

I am now, having researched this book. [Laughs]

Yeah. Sandy was an incredibly well-known AA speaker. His biggest gift was telling stories. And they both did something that’s the key to a good speaker: rather than telling you what you have to do, they’d paint a picture of it. They’d make key points about recovery through storytelling.

You mentioned hitting your cousin Sandy with “silly recovery questions.” Do you remember what they were?

Yeah. Looking back, they’re silly, but they’re the questions you have when you’re new [in recovery]. Dating. How does AA work? Do you get paid for speaking? All these little questions that pop in your mind. Sandy was probably the wrong person to ask, though. He was married three or four times. [Laughs]

Well, maybe he was the right person.

You may be right! [Laughs]

What’s the most inspiring part about this project?

I think him writing this story, knowing that he’s dying, is a very powerful thing in itself. His desire to leave it as his legacy, I think, is the most moving thing. He did this entirely out of love. There’s no ego in it.

What do you hope people get most of it?

[Pauses] Hope. Alcoholics and addicts do change and go onto to have wonderful lives. It is possible. That’s the message.

So, are you still on a mission to be the “least disturbed person in the room”?

[Laughs] Well, that was Sandy’s quote, yeah, but it’s a terrific goal. I’ll be 68 on Sunday. I’m trying to simplify life—clutter and mind—so I can pay attention to what this path is that I’m on. Because it’s so easy to miss the path and that’s what happens when you’re disturbed. You can’t find the solution. There’s too much noise in the way. Being undisturbed is not a place you live—but it’s a great to visit.

And since the author’s widow Cheryl was left with not only 80 self-published versions of Bottoms Up, but memories of a life lived with the author and his addiction, I reached out to her for her own special insights.

How many times have you read the book, personally?

I have read the book at least six times. It’s an easy read. It can be read in small bites, and each time I get something different out of it.

What was the most surprising thing about this manuscript/publication process to you?

When he passed away, he left it to me to move his book forward. I felt a huge responsibility, but I didn’t have a clue on how to go about doing this. I prayed on it. I reached out to the local Brevard AA inter-group office and explained my dilemma. Someone suggested that I contact Hotchkiss Publishing. I sent off an e-mail and I received [one back]from Bill Ludwig, the publisher, saying: “Yes! I am very interested. I can’t begin to tell you how perfect is the timing of your email.” What was surprising was how quickly I found a publisher, and more importantly, one who really understood the contents of the book. I like to think it was divine intervention.

Was there anything in the book that was hard or difficult for you to read?

Yes, in the very beginning of the book he wrote, “During the ensuing years my disease and I would manage to severely corrupt or abandon whatever principles of decency I may have possessed. I rarely had a problem with morally or ethically questionable decisions. When faced with those dilemmas, at almost every instance, I would lower my standards. I would, like most alcoholics, eventually become a master of rationalization, denial and deceit. Opting instead to drink, I would continue to compromise my integrity and abandon many of my responsibilities until I reluctantly arrived at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous 17 years later.”

The first few times I read that I would choke up. I lived the flip side of many of the stories he writes about. The book holds a roller coaster of emotions for me.

What do you hope readers get from it?

There are a lot of clinical books about alcoholism. This book contains the stark naked truth told by a man who was dying, an alcoholic who wanted to share his experience and the truth that he came to know and acknowledge, with the sincere desire to help others. Every reader is different. I hope that they get what they need. There is hope and help for alcoholics and for those affected by alcoholism.

Photo courtesy of Paul Clermont via Hotchkiss Publishing (resized and recropped)

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.