Saturday, October 10, 2015

Last Drink to LA by John Sutherland (2014 reprint)

Anyone who has been reading this blog or following my reviews on Goodreads will know that I adore a drinking memoir. Next to cookbooks, they are my favourite type of non-fiction. I have an insatiable thirst for them (see what I did there? *pats self on back with cleverness in true John Sutherland Style*). Last Drink to LA is a different type of drinking memoir to the normal one. Divided into three parts and an epilogue, former academic John Sutherland takes a discursive approach to drinking. He's not interested in facts or statistic: he likes stories, and that is what makes up most of this book.

The first section is a history of drinking through a literary lens. Sutherland discusses famous drunk historical figures (mostly authors) and provides quotes from the writers' literary outputs relating to their drinking. This section was largely interesting, although Sutherland's frequent use of Latin got a bit tiring after a while. We get it, you've had a classical education. Bully for you. For those of us who haven't (basically everyone under 70), you're just making it harder for us to enjoy your writing. I also found the author's fondness for using the phrase "topped himself" to describe successful suicides a bit cavalier, but maybe I'm sensitive on the subject, seeing suicide as a bad thing. The drunks he discusses in this section are all men; for John Sutherland, women drunks aren't an actual thing. It's not their fault - their weak female bodies can't handle the drink, unlike the strong manly men for whom drinking is related to cultural ideals of masculinity. Sure thing, John.

The second section is where my problems with the book really built up. It is a history of AA. I am not a fan of AA. Many other authors have written of its negative aspects. I have a lot of problems with it: the centrality of religion; its complete lack of accountability; its poor success rate; its promotion as alcoholism as a disease for which abstinence is the only cure (many people who have periods of problematic drinking are able to be social drinkers later in life without any problems with alcohol); and its clear sexism. Sexism is not a problem for John, who as I mentioned only considers men true drunks (the two drunk women mentioned in the first section were wives; the two drunk women mentioned in this section are prostitutes, so John neatly slots women into the the Madonna-whore literary dichotomy). John is not concerned with facts, only with stories. Since the AA model is based on stories - people (men) standing up in rooms and recounting how they got there - John likes it a lot. In fact, he says the reason that he stopped attending AA meetings is because he wasn't a good enough storyteller (John likes to be the best at everything). He acknowledges the central cognitive dissidence of AA - that it both asks you to accept alcoholism as a disease that is not your fault and at the same time take responsibility for all of the horrible things you did while drunk and be responsible for choosing abstinence - but he doesn't explain it, just acknowledges it and move on. This section was not very interesting.

The third section was the one where I really got cross. This is John's story of how he sobered up. Basically, his life in London was falling apart due to his problems with alcohol. Because he was brilliant, he got offered a job at an American university, which he took, leaving his wife and son behind in the UK. The only bar within walking distance was a gay bar, so that's where he went to drink. One morning he woke up in the bed of a man, went to touch the man's penis but instead of a penis found only a stump. He went home, drank three bottles of wine, and the next day rang AA to give up the demon drink.

This story is full of so much what-the-fuck I don't even know where to begin. Firstly, being gay is not contagious. You don't catch it by going to a gay bar. John says it's lucky he gave up drink because if he hadn't he probably would have got AIDs. Dude, it's not the drink that gives you AIDs, it's unprotected sex. I just can't even with the attitudes towards gay sex here. Also, why include the information about the penis stump? If there had been a penis there when you groped the guy ("accidentally, as I trust", he says, har har), would you still be drinking? In fairness, he does say in the epilogue he shouldn't have included that information in the original book, but I was reading a reprint. Take it out if you don't like it.

The bit that made me see red was this statement: "On at least one occasion, I had been physically abusive to my wife and son. Drunks do these things (and worse)." No, John, drunks don't do these things - domestic abusers do those things. You committed domestic violence. You hit your wife and child, not the drink. Does he acknowledge this or get help for it? No, of course not. None of this is John's fault! It's the drink. John is blameless. He later reveals that his son attempted suicide as a teenager and has had a lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol. He writes: "Addiction was, I suppose, my legacy to him, his patrimony; like alcoholic father, like addict son." Bullshit, John. The poor kid grew up with an alcoholic violent dad who hit him and cheated on his mum. He dealt with this by taking drugs and drinking. You can't hand wave this away by pretending there's some genetic lottery your son has just lost. You were violent and abusive and, if you bothered to do any research, you'd see the connection between experience abuse and abusing drugs and alcohol.

As for the epilogue, just don't read it. It's a bunch of self-serving twaddle about how great John is. He got to serve on a Booker prize and made a really important decision that was really important because John is super important. Since quitting booze, he's never even wanted a drink, because John is excellent at all things, even not drinking. Shut up, John.

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