Review: ‘The Alcoholic’ by Ames and Haspiel
By Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel
DC Comics, October 2008, $19.99
The main character of T[[[he Alcoholic]]] is one Jonathan A., a writer who looks very much like writer Jonathan Ames and whose life has been exceptionally similar to Ames’s. Those who have read Ames before know that this is nothing new: he is his own best subject, either transformed fictionally in novels like [[[I Pass Like Night]]] and [[[Wake Up, Sir!]]] or poured out in his rawly hilarious nonfiction in [[[What’s Not To Love?]]] Jonathan A. is and is not Jonathan Ames; The Alcoholic isn’t a memoir but a novel (a graphic novel – very graphic in places), and so we must treat A. as a fictional character.
(I think I’ll refer to him as A. from here on; it adds an oddly Kafkaesque air – or, and perhaps more appropriately, a sense of anonymity and confession.)
The Alcoholic is A.’s life story – or at least as much of his life as concerns alcohol and sex – from 1979 through late 2001, high school through early middle age. It opens in August 2001, as A. is waking up in a station wagon in Asbury Park, with an old, very short woman trying to seduce him after a long night of drinking.
A. then drops back to give his early history of drinking and sex: the former began in 1979, when he was fifteen and started drinking heavily with his best friend, Sal. Drinking leads, eventually, to fumbling drunken sexual experimentation, and then, just as commonly, to a vow never to speak about What Happened ever again. Sal and drinking, though, lead A. to a girlfriend (and sex with her) some time later – though, in Ames’s typical fashion, things never quite go right. The sex is short and unsatisfactory, and A. eventually breaks up with Stacy when she tells him that she kissed another boy.
A.’s story bounces back and forth from there, covering his drunken younger life up to the point he went into rehab in the late ‘80s and his falling off the wagon in 2000-2001 after a bad breakup with a woman he called the name of whatever city she was living in at the time (San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago). In between, he became a moderately successful writer of a series of mystery novels, but, as usual with Ames’s work, The Alcoholic is not a story of success, so those times are glossed over quickly.
In the middle of the 2001 bender, 9/11 happens, and the terrorist attacks sit uneasily in the center of The Alcoholic as they have in so many other realistic novels set during the last decade. The attacks are so large, so separated from the action of any novel, that they threaten to overwhelm any story they appear in, dragging half-baked allegory or uncomfortable politics in their wake. Ames integrates that horrifying day, and the numbing aftermath, pretty well, but it’s a shock in the story as it was a shock in real life. Since A. is a New Yorker, the attacks can’t be left out, but they’re still an intrusion of the real into this (presumably) fictional story.
Along the way, the voice of reason – or, I should say, of a more reasonable and mellow hedonism – is provided by A.’s great-aunt Sadie, his only living relative in his adult years. She’s lived a full, interesting life – and continues to do so, off the page, as A. runs through his bender years and his productive years – but without the horrible highs and lows A. drives himself to. And she’s the one who tells A., at nearly the end of The Alcoholic, “Nobody gets everything they want. That’s the way it is.”
Ames’s writing style is wordy and discursive, just like the voice of his novels. The Alcoholic is narrated extensively by A., both directly on-panel and through captions. Haspiel uses continually varying panel layouts and angles to keep the visual interest high – this is mostly a book about people talking to each other, spiced up occasionally by a car crash, a sex scene, or some explosive diarrhea. For once, the writing is flashier than the art – Haspiel draws recognizable people in various clothes (and A. with diminishing amounts of hair as time goes on), and is well-served by Lee Loughridge’s graytones, but Ames sends his story backward and forward in time as his alcoholic narrator explains, pleads and cajoles the audience. It’s a great depiction of the mind of an addict.
The title is accurate – A. is definitely an alcoholic. But he’s also more than that: he’s just an addict. He’s happy to try other drugs when they come his way, and his relationships with women, particularly the one he names after her city, also show a pattern of addiction. And, in the end, who knows what will be next for him? I’d like to think that he’s found sobriety, but he says himself “just about the only thing that will get an alcoholic or drug addict to stop is pain. A lot of pain.” A. has certainly seen a lot of pain – though most of it is essentially self-inflicted – but has that been enough?
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like to submit books for reviewed should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.