If there is one book that rises above all others in The Recovering, it is Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest, with its depictions of the modest heroism of the recovering addict. I loved Jamison’s smart insights and frank reverence for Infinite Jest—her discussion of it is one of the most comforting pieces of criticism on Wallace I have read. But let’s be honest: Wallace’s story does not have a happy ending. He was, we know, wrestling with more demons than just addiction, but this returns me to a point that I think Jamison is not as forthright about as she might be: Sobriety does not always lead to triumph, in art or in life. At the end of the day, she characterizes Carver, Johnson, and Wallace a bit too naively: They are heroes because they used the twelve steps to get clean, and yet even while clean, they remained—or became!—magnificent writers. To my mind, this is a very dangerous kind of idolatry. Whether you’re idolizing booze or you’re idolizing booze-free, you’re still idolizing, and I think that focusing so much on whether these writers were sober or drunk keeps Jamison from offering a complex portrait of their actual struggles. She focuses on the results, not on the whole life. As with Jesus’ Son, she is drawn to the last story, when she could be thinking about the entire collection.
And we should wonder about the very notion of “sobriety”—a notion that is not sufficiently interrogated in Jamison’s book, but really taken for granted. Witness: “I would have loved to hear Amy Winehouse sing sober. Not just two weeks sober, but three years sober, twenty years sober.” I worry that this observation is as much about Jamison and her own anxiety (with which I sympathize) as it is about Amy Winehouse. What if the sober Amy wasn’t all that good three years sober, twenty years sober? Would she be less in Jamison’s eyes?