Literary portrayals of Alcoholics Anonymous are notoriously difficult. The primary challenge being, how do you write about “the program” without sounding either corny or patronizing. It doesn’t help that word people have such an allergy to the slogans and platitudes that populate AA. Anyway, I’m always on the lookout for effective depictions, and recently had to opportunity to ask someone who knows about such things if they were aware of any good ones–other than Infinite Jest, that is. Her answer surprised me. She told me that if I hadn’t read Erica Jong’s Any Woman’s Blues, I should consider it, that it was the most memorable thing she’d read on the subject. I had a vague picture of Jong in my mind, but it was of more an ideologue than a writer, a poster child for second-wave feminism. Shame on me. I’m only half way through but it definitely isn’t what you’d expect from the author of the famously controversial Fear of Flying (though it isn’t not what you’d expect either – fair warning). The novel tells the story of Leila Sand, an obsessive artist trying to kick an addiction to alcoholism and/or sex, and much of the action takes place in or around church basements. A few memorable passages, ht LM:

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“And the platitudes—an attitude of platitude, I call it. And yet [the program] works. As they say, it works if you work it. I don’t even know why it works. Grace, I guess.” (101)

“I am uncomfortable, feeling responsible somehow for [my lover Dart’s] reaction to the Program. What if he doesn’t like the meeting? What if he quits the Program? Will I then be tempted to quit? Emmie is right. I think I can control everything.

Somewhere deep in this anxiety lies the key to the mess I have made of my life. If only I could just be and stop worrying the same old sad bone of my responsibility for everyone’s feelings. Surrender is what I seek. I thought I was seeking skinlessness; what I was really seeking was surrender. Acceptance of the universe. Acceptance of the fact that God, not Leila, is in charge.” (124-125)

“Dart raises his hand. ‘I’m Dart, a drug addict and an alcoholic,’ he says, ‘and this is my first meeting. Your story made me think of the way my father once held my face under water and tried to drown me because I talked back to him. I’m full of conflicted feelings, but I’m glad to be here. I want to get sober with all my heart.’ People look at Dart as if his confession has triggered something powerful in them. How many drunks in this room have struggled though drownings and beating just to arrive here, at this church basement in rural Connecticut? I think of the odds against all of us, and my eyes fill with tears.” (126)

“The meeting has not yet started , and people mill about, drinking coffee and greeting each other. All strangers, but bound together by kindness and an agreement to try to be honest. I love AA’s reprieve from the standards that hold sway in the rest of our society. Elsewhere greed and falsehood and egotism are the rule. Here, generosity, truth, humility. I am nervous because U drank tonight and I will have to say so, but there is something healing about just being here in this room. The love in the room is palpable. Somewhere, here, my sane mind is waiting.” (154)

“All my success led me to pressures of a different sort from the ones you’ve had—but they are pressures just the same. There’s no competition between us. We’re all stumbling human beings. The Program led me to see my life in spiritual terms, and I blew it—maybe because I couldn’t take my life actually getting better. I wanted the pain back. I made a little bargain with God that I would get sober if I could have my lover back, and I got him back for a while, and that misled me. But God doesn’t play by our rules. And we can’t be like petulant little kids and say ‘Well, if God doesn’t play by my rules, I’m not playing. I’ll destroy myself—so there!’ We really haven’t got that option. We can choose to live or choose to die—but we can’t straddle the fence. And if we want to live we have no choice but to submit—not to our own will, to God’s.” (157)

“I looked at the school listing the Twelve Steps and realized you could spend your whole life on any one of them. I could do a conceptual piece on AA scrolls—but wouldn’t risk it for fear of tampering with the magic…

Allowing the steps to drift through my mind, I focused on the sixth—something about being ‘entirely ready’ to have God remove one’s ‘defects of character’ —which was the subject of tonight’s meeting. What did ‘entirely ready’ mean? It meant you were ready to open your heart to God. It meant you really wanted to get better. It mean you were through with self-pity. It meant you were entirely ready to listen to your own sane mind.

Was I? Absolutely not. I was too attached to my pain and self-pity, too attached to Dart, too attached to the me that was just like Dart, too attached to my own willfulness…

Lenore B. said: ‘Watchin’ my brother dies of AIDS, I axed myself: Does you really believe in spirit, or is you only pretendin’ to? Because he lost his faith in his final sickness, an’ I almos’ did myself. He was a terrble sight: tumors comin’ out of his tongue, a sickenin’ smell, a wasted body. I nursed him, an’ many’s the time I wanted to drink, but even more often I wanted to curse God for his afflictions. And for mine. It was the sixth step that save me. Specially two words of the sixth step. The words ‘entirely ready.’ Was I entirely ready to give up the flesh? I wasn’t—not till I saw my brother’s flesh rottin’ and fallin’ off. We don’ like death. We don’ like disease. We think we be too big for death and disease. We think we be beyond the flesh. But flesh is mostly there as a lesson. Once we learn it, we pass it on.

‘I bless the day God took my brother Harold. I bless the day I saw him lyin’ and heap of bones and stinkin’ flesh. Till that day, I didn’t believe I was mortal. But now I believes it. I am entirely ready. And whenever I become unready, God sends me another reminder.’ (159-160)