‘The Alcoholic’ is a scabby and subversive masterpiece
by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel (Vertigo Comics, hardcover, $19.99)
On Sale Sept. 24.
It was a grim weekend here in Los Angeles. There was a horrific train wreck on Friday afternoon and that same night the brilliant novelist David Foster Wallace was found dead at his home in Claremont with a noose around his neck. The self-inflicted death of any gifted writer starts your mind searching; the natural impulse is to scrutinize their body of work, which trailed behind their lives like the tail of a kite. All of this was circling in my brain this morning when I picked up “The Alcoholic,” the wrenching (and, frequently, the retching) graphic novel written by novelist Jonathan Ames, whose own besotted life inspired the contours of this tale. The book is brilliantly executed with a boldly scabby story that is both demoralizing and relevatory and, amazingly, deeply funny at times. "The Alcoholic" gives us a tortured soul who is bottled up in more ways than one, but that humor and a truly wicked honesty keep the pages turning.
The artwork here is by Dean Haspiel, who put pictures to the words of Harvey Pekar in the “The Quitter,” a similarly paced (and titled) comic-as-confession that was put together with an outsider spirit and a bitterly adept eye for human examination. “The Quitter” was good, but “The Alcoholic” is sublime because it is hilarious and bawdy and deeply distressing. Ames is a member of the walking wounded of this addiction age and every bar is next battlefield; “The Alcoholic” is so scary and so funny because it’s written with the detached voice of a war correspondent who is so busy taking vivid notes that he doesn’t have the sense to run for his life.
The main character is Jonathan A. who grows up with a nit-picking mother and fearful father and a major dollop of self-loathing. He and his best friend find that they can shed some of their teen clumsiness by simply chugging down some beer — and for Jonathan, the booze flows as naturally as the blood in his veins. Vomiting becomes as natural as an ebb tide; and the agony is so worth it considering the numb float-time when the next evening’s high-tide arrives.
The booze is always there but everything else for Jonathan is fleeting and fraught with confusion. He’s sexually perplexed and haunted by ego and shame. He can be callow or sparkling, depending on whether his manias are working for or against him. There are some truly ugly moments (i.e., waking up naked in a garbage can and wondering whether he had sex with his male drug dealer) and some sweetly touching sequences (standing in a bookstore looking at his first published work and tearfully imagining his dead and now-idealized parents looking on with spectral smiles of pride).
The wild, prurient scenes (a near-orgy at girl’s school springs to mind) stay with a reader, but the true achievement of this book is its careful construction, not its audacious content. Too many times today, the graphic novels that read as meta-memoirs have visually stagnant pages that spell out "big thoughts" with talking heads that visually deaden and drain the storytelling. Ames and Haspiel sidestep this by truly collaborating in the way that fits the medium they have chosen.
For example, there is a sequence where Jonathan A., enjoying a rare window of sobriety, goes to a tropical island on a magazine assignment. It’s here in the story that the narrator gives us a few hundred words about the physical nature of his allergic addiction to booze and diagrams the vicious cycle of his emotional problems. But the entire time, Haspiel is accompanying these words with a flow of images of our protagonist moving from sandy beaches to isolated covers, from the surface of the water down to murky reefs. It’s one of the few times in the entire book that Jonathan A. looks at ease and the only time he looks graceful within the world around him. The words are telling us that our protagonist drowns when he drinks, the pictures are showing us that he swims when he is sober. It’s like musicians with different instruments deftly circling around the same melody; the listener in the audience doesn’t need to deconstruct the notes to feel the pattern or to appreciate its satisfying flow.
The book reminded me at times of films as diverse as “Lost Weekend,” “Permanent Midnight” and (oddly) “After Hours,” and it also recalled the authentic achievement of “A Drinking Life,” the memoir by Pete Hamill that sits among my very favorite books. I haven’t read James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” or David Carr’s acclaimed new crack-pipe diary “The Night of the Gun,” so I can’t speak parallels there, but there is certainly a whiff (or a snort?) of Hunter S. Thompson and Brett Easton Ellis here, and the former makes this graphic novel’s bald and wicked protagonist a low-tech doppelganger for Spider Jerusalem from the pages of “Transmetropolitan.” I could say plenty more about this book (and I know I will be reading it again very soon), but I suppose the thing I most want to express is the hope that Ames finds a way to pull his own life in a trajectory away from the gutters and anxieties that fill the pages of this make-believe memoir. The death of Foster has me wondering if self-destructive writers spend years writing their suicide notes on thinly disguised pages. I hope that’s not the case for “The Alcoholic” and its mastermind.
– Geoff Boucher
UPDATED: I had James Frey’s name wrong in an earlier version of this post, sorry about that.
Images from "The Alcoholic" courtesy of Vertigo Comics.