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An Alcoholic at the End of the World

An Alcoholic at the End of the World

  • A piece from Keely Shinners, author of "How to Build a Home for the End of the World"

Even the terminal dryness of bone hides inside our skin plainly, like dust on a mirror. This can guide us forward or not guide us at all.

— Kaveh Akbar, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober”

In 2017, I started taking notes for a novel I longed to write about a father and daughter on a road trip at the end of the world. I was twenty. It was winter. I had dreamed of becoming a writer for most of my life, but I had never written anything publishable. 

The notes outlined the characters of the novel. Mary-Beth, the protagonist, was a thinly-veiled version of my younger self: sheltered, naive, eager to please, and struggling to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer innocent. Her father, Donny, was a man not unlike my own father: a patriarch, a carpenter, a working-class Midwesterner, a holy man. There was a third character: Dr. Maria Camphor. She was to be the narrator of the book. In order to put Mary-Beth and Donny down on the page, I needed a surrogate for the writer I had to be. Grown up. Capable. A writer who could see things from a distance. My future self.

I began to conceive Maria as an anthropologist who, writing a case study about the end of the world, had chosen Mary-Beth and Donny as her subjects. Later on, she would become not just a framing device, but a character in the story. A lifelong Californian and academic, she was also a widow and a raging alcoholic. In the novel, when we meet her, she is suffering from end-stage liver disease. She comes to meet Mary-Beth because Mary-Beth is an organ donor. A portion of her liver will be transplanted to Maria in order to keep her alive. 

Looking back, I am amazed by the prescience of this conceit. My past-self swapping her healthy liver for my future-self’s ravaged one or, as Maria put it, “mine pustuled and screeching, hers opulent as an apple.” Prescient, because—although, when I began the book at the age of twenty, I was not a drinker—by the time I finished my novel, How To Build a Home for the End of the World, I was in the throes of alcoholism, sick and sad and drinking every day. 

I cannot pinpoint the start of my alcoholism. That is, I can’t remember if the book had anything to do with it. I admit that, in my younger years, I had been seduced by the mythology of the alcoholic writer, the apocryphal Hemingway adage, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” But I never drank when I wrote. I was not a Duras who began to write after her morning Cognac and coffee, nor was I a Fitzgerald whose glass of gin always accompanied him at his typewriter. I would go through periods of immense productivity—I wrote the entirety of Part II of How To Build a Home in a month-long sprint—and afterwards I would reward myself by taking to the bottle, avoiding the novel for weeks, sometimes months. 

This was the routine. I would dive deep into the dark recesses of my mind, mining for lines and ideas. Then, I would drink for days at clubs and bars, to feel my mind snap shut. Alcohol was my binge, writing my purge. 

When I was writing about Maria, I had a vague impression that she represented the person I would become should this routine continue. But, for the most part, I was in denial. I was in my early twenties; partying every weekend was not particularly unusual for my age. I surrounded myself with friends who drank and drank often. I kept the darker moments hidden. Those days I would spend in front of the toilet, vomiting. Or in bed, passing in and out of consciousness in a hungover, painkiller-laced stupor. Strangely, I began to crave these sick days as much as I craved that limb-loosener, the first drink. When I was sick, it was as if I could parachute from the unreal world of my memory and imagination and drop down into the materiality of my body. 

I took all the complicated thoughts I had while working on the book, like the crumpled-up notes Maria leaves around her house: “Where to locate the End of the World? Who were its writers, its participants? How did we mourn? Is the archive any use in post-apocalyptic times? What did we win? What did we want?” I replaced these with thoughts that were very simple and refined: “Sleep it off. Heave it out. Dry it off.” This refinement, this distillation through alcohol, was a welcome (if temporary), relief from the difficulty of the writing process. 

The book itself has a lot of alcohol. Despite the fact that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where water is a precious commodity, my characters found ways to drink and drink often. When people asked me, “Why is there no water but plenty of moonshine and beer?” the answer I typically gave was a logical one: “In a world of contaminants, beer might be safer to drink than water.” Or, “If people in neolithic times made alcohol, people at the end of the world will find a way to make it too.” What I really meant was (to remix a phrase attributed to Mark Fisher), “It’s easier for me to imagine the end of the world than the end of alcohol.”

When the book was finished—when I held the print copy in the palm of my hand—I expected to be happier than I had ever been. My dream, achieved—earned—after five years of hard work. I was not happy. Not entirely. 

The trouble was that the novel’s publication put those dark recesses of my mind on a public stage. Family wounds broke open. Resentments amongst friends fomented. When How To Build a Home was released last year on May Day, I was on the phone with folks back home, doing damage control. I drank to cope. Or rather, I struggled to cope because I was drinking.  

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In June, I went to Chicago and New York for a book tour. During this time, my drinking was at its most obscene. I remember trading signed copies of my book for shots at a bar in Brooklyn. I remember maxing out my card at a club in the East Village. I remember struggling to stand in front of a microphone at a reading because my feet were so swollen from drinking. I arrived back home from tour dazed, drained, short on money and emotionally in shambles. I subjected myself to a few more months of binges before, at last, I admitted to myself that things could not carry on this way. 

Towards the end of How To Build a Home, Maria finds Donny drinking by himself at a bar. She convinces him to put the bottle down and come home with her, instead. She says, speaking not only to him, but to herself too: “I know you’re confused. I know you’re scared. But if you continue to act like the victim, so help me, I will dump you right back at the bar and see how many bottles you can finish before you end up dead. Is that what you want? Do you want to leave me? Do you want to die?” 

Her anger jogs a memory. Her husband has gone out to sea for a swim. He does not come back. She remembers: “I stay awake all night waiting for him, Michel, praying that he will come back. In the morning, when his absence washes over me, I take all Michel’s bottles of fine wine and whiskey from the cellar and bring them to bed with me. I drink in big, tasteless gulps, until the room spins and my body gets swept up by sleep. When I wake, I drink some more. I sleep for days, vomit sometimes, become nothing more than a waystation for toxins, a bag of brittle bones. When my supply runs out, I break into my neighbors’ houses and steal their bottles too. I can’t say how long this goes on for—months, a year, perhaps more—so possessed am I by the desire to obliterate the world around me. I refuse to face my misfortune. I refuse to house my grief.”

When I read these words now, I see a letter to myself, a plea issuing forth from the depths of my despair. Although I was spared the trauma of a husband’s sudden death, I, too, had the desire to obliterate the world around me. I, too, refused to face my misfortune. I refused to house my grief. 

Now, I am nine months sober. As I whittle away at my second novel, I am learning that the mind of a writer is not a vent that needs to be opened and shut, but a home that must be tended to with loving grace. I am learning that the mind and the body are inseparable, that I must care for the one if I am to trust in the other. To do this, I am spending less time at clubs and bars, more time amongst rocks and by the sea. I am attending to old wounds with concentration and making time to go deep with the people I love. I am learning, to borrow another phrase from Maria, that “the body—by which I include a collective of bodies, or bodies that rumble beneath us unacknowledged—is equipped with the capacity to heal.”

How to Build a Home for the End of the World
By Keely Shinners
Perennial Press

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