Addiction memoirs, for the most part, have flat third acts. Their writers get sober. That’s cheerful news for them, but less so for us. They were so interesting to read about when they were knocking over chairs.
Sarah Hepola’s new memoir, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” doesn’t escape this happy/sad fate. God and yoga and AA meetings and healthy victuals arrive to fill the beer-bottle-shaped hole in her soul. Her life’s problems do not vanish, yet by the end, they’re wrapped in warm bundles.
The first two-thirds of “Blackout,” however, are simply extraordinary. Hepola’s electric prose marks her as a flamingo among this genre’s geese. She has direct access to the midnight gods of torch songs, neon signs, tap beer at a reasonable price, cigarettes and untrammeled longing.
Hepola, who is 40 and an editor at Salon, grew up in Dallas. At drinking, she was something of a child prodigy. By 7, she was sneaking sips of Pearl Light from the half-empty cans her parents left in the refrigerator. (Who leaves half-empty beer cans in the refrigerator?)
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Cooking sherry and Cointreau were available, too, she reports. “But nothing was as good as beer. The fizz. The left hook of it. That wicked ka-pow.” Those first tastes “lit a fuse in me that burned for decades.” The scent of beer, “as gorgeous as campfire, as unmistakable as gasoline,” crackled early in her nerve endings.
She went to the University of Texas at Austin, then worked for alternative weeklies and small newspapers, becoming music critic of The Dallas Observer. There was some feminist fire fueling her long nights at bars. She stopped blow-drying her hair and wearing much makeup.
“I wore clothes that stank of hamper and Marlboro Lights, and it seemed to me that men got off on this new uncorseted persona,” she writes, adding: “Death to the girl of the nervous fidgets, behold the woman with a beer in her hand and one endless cigarette.”
Hepola’s drinking — especially when she was trying to diet, which made her consume less ballast — increasingly led to blackouts, hours she couldn’t remember the next morning. She plays these moments, at the start, for existential or low comedy. We watch her roofie herself, basically, and later ask questions like “Do you have any idea what happened to my jeans?” and “Why is there a corn dog in my bed?”
She falls down stairs. She moons people in bumper-to-bumper traffic, “which is a little bit like mooning someone and then being stuck in a grocery line with them for the next 10 minutes.”
These events become less comical. She wakes beside strange men. “I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care,” she says, “but I woke up a person who cared enormously. Many yeses on Friday nights would have been noes on Saturday morning. My consent battle was in me.”
One of the strongest things in “Blackout” is Hepola’s writing about the science of blacking out, how people tend to confuse it with slumping over. “In a blackout, a person is anything but silent and immobile,” she writes. “You can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of your past.” You can sing defiant karaoke. But your blood alcohol has shut down your brain’s long-term memory center, and you will recall nothing.
The blackouts, at first, are something she shrugs off “like an unpaid cable bill.” For her book, she speaks to scientists and other experts. One tells her, ominously: “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”
Indeed, things are done to Hepola. There is a grim morning in a Paris hotel. But she also writes: “My experience has mostly been the opposite. I have been the recipient of so much unsolicited kindness.”
As a form, addiction memoirs are permanently interesting because they’re an excuse to crack open a life. Hepola’s book moves to a top shelf in this arena.
Dwight Garner, New York Times News Service
“Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget” by Sarah Hepola (230 pages; Grand Central Publishing; $26)