Sunday, 25 January 2009
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're trying to stop drinking
January has always seemed to me the worst time of year to give anything up – surely we need the comforts of chocolate or red wine now more than ever? – but anyone who is intent on sticking to their New Year resolutions of self-denial, yet wavering as the month goes on, might find their resolve strengthened by reading ‘Liars in Love’, a collection of short stories by Richard Yates.
An American writer with a cult following, Yates nevertheless died in near- obscurity in 1992, having effectively drank and smoked himself to death. His posthumous fame has risen with the release of the film adaptation of his novel, ‘Revolutionary Road’, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, a bleak tale in which the protagonists drink too much Bourbon, smoke too many cigarettes, and suffer miserable fates. But if that’s too big a dose of depression, and therefore as likely to send you back to the bottle, then reading ‘Liars in Love’ might be more effective a remedy, as a series of short, sharp shocks.
The title story of the collection takes place in London in the early 1950s where the central character, Warren, is a young American who has moved there with his wife and small child. The marriage is rocky, and the wife returns to New York with their daughter (as happened to Yates, too, in 1951). Warren becomes involved with a prostitute – a ‘Piccadilly commando’ – who is the mother of a baby girl. While the baby sleeps, the adults get drunk on gin, have sex, fight, and lie to each other; compulsively so, in the case of the prostitute, in order to glamorize her life, though the young man is able to escape from London, back to New York and his wife.
In reality, Yates continued to drink, but even as everything fell apart around him (marriages, finances, sanity), his writing retained its lucidity. Such is its crystalline precision – of dialogue, atmosphere, despair – that his fiction continues to serve as a warning of how alcohol leads to disgrace and collapse, yet his life remains oddly heroic. He may have been a drunk, but he never lost his resolve as a writer; and therefore never gave up.