In the Literature of Addiction, Life's Always a Gamble
Boston Globe, June 27, 1999.
MY BACK PAGES
If all literature is about yearning, the literature of addiction is exaggerated, compressed, unequivocal in the specificity of what it desires: Every addict wants the next fix as much as Ahab wanted that whale. Though we can often predict, with terrible accuracy, what the dramatic conflict in this literature will turn out to be will the addict or the addiction prevail, and at what cost to all involved? the subject has spawned a wonderfully rich bibliography, top-heavy, as we know, with the work of American writers.
To many generations of our literati, "A drinking writer is a good writer" was a sort of professional ideal, like the Hippocratic oath. A partial list of communicants is staggering in its breadth: Poe, London, Parker, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Neill, O'Hara, Charles Jackson, Shirley Jackson, Kerouac, Berryman, Lowell, Sexton, Cheever, Carver. So too is the range of important work fired by drink and drug: "Long Day's Journey into Night," "The Iceman Cometh," "Naked Lunch," "A Fan's Notes," "Manchild in the Promised Land," and a miniature favorite of mine, Kate Braverman's story "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" (in "The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories"), about an addict's fall off the wagon because she can't resist intoxication's capacity to give her access to her imagination. She is hooked, we come to see, on stories, the tall tales of the man who tells them; she gets a contact high off narrative.
This spring, as a visiting professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, I turned a small corner of this literature into a course I loosely called Addiction Fiction. Planning it the year before from New York, where we are only addicted to status, celebrity, and the Zagat guide, I had begun to feel the limitations of these narratives: A little heroin goes a long way, and "Lost Weekend" is more interesting as history or sociology than as literature. In the unruly, outlaw spirit of addiction itself and of Las Vegas, too I was moved to take a few liberties. I enlarged the theme to include obsession, which, in the right hands, behaves an awful lot like addiction (see "Lolita" or "Portnoy's Complaint") and added two memoirs, De Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" and (to make sure I had the students' undivided attention, however briefly) "The Kiss," Kathryn Harrison's account of her affair with her father. Though the incestuous liaison is obviously the sensationalistic heart of the story, "The Kiss" is a searing case study in the consequences of emotional deprivation in children. The pathology Harrison acts out in consenting, at age 20, to be her father's lover had its roots in her mother's neglect and abuse and her father's absence.
I'd have liked to hold classes at the bar of a casino, but even in our barren classroom one of the few enclosed spaces in Las Vegas without video poker machines the psychic sludge of the Strip, half a mile away, occasionally oozed into our discussions. For me, the high point of the course was the free-for-all that erupted when we discussed Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler" and students, many of whom work full time, began talking about what they witness on their jobs in casinos. "I work the graveyard shift as a cocktail waitress in a dive on the Strip," said one woman. "I have to laugh when guys say, `Wow! The drinks are free!' No, dude, the drinks are not free. I saw medics wheel in a woman with a tracheotomy. She sat at a slot machine for eight hours. Another guy spent 16 straight hours playing blackjack, knocking back gin and tonic."
Said a young man who had barely spoken all semester: "I'm a bartender at Treasure Island. I was reading this at work" he held open "The Gambler" and pretended to read "and then I looked up across the casino" his eyes bugged out in amazed recognition "and I didn't know which was which."
Another man told us that casinos actually like it when customers are rowdy, rowdy enough to get others wondering what all the commotion is about. Commotion, it turns out, is a good thing in a casino, like quiet in a library.
The low point of the semester came later that evening, on my way to dinner at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe. Like all trendy eateries in Sin City, it's in a casino, meaning deep inside: By design, you must pass 900 slot machines to get there. I did not lose my fortune, as Alexi does many times over in "The Gambler" and Dostoyevsky did in real life just my moral superiority and two crisp twenties, a quarter at a time.
There are many reasons to read, or reread, "The Gambler," not the least of them its resounding echoes in the essay by Frederick and Steven Barthelme in a recent New Yorker magazine, about their legal troubles stemming from too many nights at a Mississippi riverboat casino. Both writers are college professors; their addiction, like Dostoyevsky's, gives the lie to the notion that gambling is NOCD (Not Our Class, Darling) the class, I mean, of intellectuals. A visiting friend of mine, someone from the same class who had never gambled, played blackjack for 45 minutes and said as we walked away, "I can see this could get to be a problem."
The Barthelme brothers blamed their downfall on "the seductiveness of gambling itself," and grief and dislocation after their parents' deaths. Alexi, a lovesick tutor working for a family in the town of Roulettenberg, has no explanation except his destiny, which he foresees the moment he enters a casino and realizes he "would leave Roulettenburg a different man and that something was about to happen which would radically and irrevocably change my life." The change is not in the size of his fortune, but in his eventual, complete surrender to a life defined by irrationality, chaos, and self-destruction. "We would have been willing to win," wrote the Barthelme boys, "but we were content to lose." More than a [two]hundred thousand dollars.
"The Gambler" was the only book on the subject we read in Addiction Fiction; mostly we were steeped in stories of booze, drugs, and sexual obsession. Many of my students, undergraduates whose ages ranged from 20 to 60, were surprised, and sometimes shocked, by the grimness, depravity (particularly Humbert Humbert's), and sexual explicitness of the material (notably Barry Hannah's "Ray"). I was surprised, and sometimes touched, by their naivete. During our last meeting, one said that until this class, he had never thought of gamblers in Las Vegas as individuals; just a mass of people. Many said the readings had made them more sympathetic to addicts. I think that was because we had looked closely at the single-mindedness of their desires as against the complexities of their needs. Some were driven to escape the violence of the inner city; others the tedium of the bourgeoisie; almost all of them, an emptiness that only being high, on something or someone, fills. "I am sure Nancy Reagan never read these books," one student wrote on her midterm.
I had not set out to make sociological points. I just thought it would be fun to poke around in these books at ground zero, in the city that's all id. What a surprise it was to discover how little the natives seem to know about the dark side of desire.