Saturday, January 26, 2019

Donald Newlove, Sweet Adversity (1978)

Well, it's Tough Poets' latest release. At six hundred pages, it's more than twice as long as any previous, and accordingly, the funding goals and price to kickstart was a little more, but the good news is, it easily shattered these goals, which bodes well for future publications.

So first let's step back a bit and ask: Donald Newlove, who he? Well, he's a writer, obviously (born 1928, still around as a nonagenarian). This book has deliriously positive blurbs on the back from prominent outlets--Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times--so obviously he had a certain cachet. But boy, nobody but nobody knows about him today. Well, obviously that's not quite true, hence this reprint, but he is NOT well-known. A lot of his books aren't even catalogued on Goodreads. He published a bunch of stuff last year with amazon's createspace self-publishing thing, and a few others some years ago with this seemingly defunct Otego Publishing thing, but it's genuinely unclear to me to what extent these are reprints and to what extent stuff that he couldn't get published earlier appearing for the first time. There would be no way, using just the internet, to assemble a comprehensible, chronological bibliography of his work. You'd have to do a lot of footwork. I mean, I guess it's not THAT strange that a formerly at least somewhat well-known and feted author should fall into obscurity; happens all the time. But boy, that's a precipitous drop. And an undeserved one, based on the evidence of this book.

One thing I can say with certainty is that this actually collects two novels: 1972's Leo & Theodore and 1974's The Drunks. There were initially published together as Sweet Adversity in 1978; Newlove is very, very definite in his contemporaneous introduction that this is the way they should be presented; that "the story loses scope and force when halved into two books." Unfortunately, the collected edition didn't get much attention and quickly fell very decidedly out-of-print; if you want to buy it on amazon, it's gonna run you a minimum of two hundred seventy-five dollars(!!!). This new reprint, therefore, is extremely welcome.

So what's it all about, then? Well, the short answer is that Leo and Teddy are cojoined twins (with autonomous nervous systems) who play jazz and become alcoholics until they slowly, painfully find their way into recovery (mirroring, I'm given to understand, Newlove's own struggles).

Right, so what do we have here? Well, even if these are published in one book, they're very obviously two distinct novels with distinct arcs, so let's look at them one at a time. Leo & Theodore is basically a Bildungsroman. It consists largely of dialogue (for which Newlove has an excellent ear) interspersed with bits of somewhat impressionistic description. It might remind one a bit of Gaddis' J.R., though what it really somehow reminded me of was Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel in its evocation of a certain kind of early twentieth-century small town life (though I don't want these comparisons to make anyone doubt the fundamental newness here). The twins grow up in upstate New York with their mother and her series of violent alcoholic boyfriends and husbands; and discover sex, music, and, inevitably, booze. And, I've gotta tell you people, it is really magical. This is no joke. There are plenty of episodes here that are just enchanting as heck.

And, of course, there's the fact that the two of them are joined at the waist; they can never be apart. What would it be like to be a cojoined twin? you may or may not have ever wondered. Obviously, you would have to be matter-of-fact about things--sex in particular, obviously--that people would generally prefer not to be with their siblings. But generally, the twins are very practical and matter-of-fact about the whole situation, as are the people around them; nobody thinks of them as freaks or even particularly abnormal. Obviously, it affects their lives in profound ways, but the novel is very understated in that regard. I don't know what it would be like to be in that situation, as neither do you, but Newlove really paints a shockingly new and intriguing picture; I've never seen anything like it before, and it's pretty great.

So we move on to The Drunks. Leo & Theodore is filled with booze, but it's not really about alcoholism. That's more of a backdrop than anything else, and the twins are basically functional throughout, even as they're drinking. But BOY OH BOY is that not the case in The Drunks, which is, very intensely, a novel about alcohol addiction. What other books have I read on this subject? L'Assommoir, but that's more of a clinical depiction; Zola was clearly looking at the topic from the outside. Newlove is much more up close and personal (though really, the novels are so different that the comparison is probably meaningless). Then there's Infinite Jest, which is about addiction in general, alcoholism included; this was something that Wallace knew about from personal experience, but he was much more a fabulist than Newlove, whose work is much more realistic. And that's about that.

But anyway. The Drunks continues the story of Leo's and Teddy's adult lives as frequently barely-functioning alcoholics. What it's really, really good at is getting across the experience of alcoholism. See, the thing is, it's one of these things that's hard for me to viscerally understand. Yeah, intellectually, I get it, but it's just never been something I've felt personally. I'll have a beer, or even, uncommonly, two, but I'm kind of a lightweight, and if I go any further than that I know I'm going to start getting drunk and it's going to be more trouble than it's worth. It's been quite some time since rip-roaring drunkenness appealed to me. So I think, man, drinking is okay, but it's not that great. How could this be addictive? And I'm not trying to brag or anything, which would be a dumb thing to brag about anyway, but I tend to lack self-control in a lot of ways, so if I were genetically disposed to alcoholism, I'd probably be an alcoholic. But thankfully, I'm not, and that's all there is to it. So ANYWAY. Sorry for wasting so much time talking about myself.

But what this novel does is provide a very vivid picture of what the condition is like: planning your day around how you're going to find regular drinks, the self-destructiveness, the endless bullshit rationalizations, the painfully clambering onto the wagon and then falling off--it's quite a thing. And then try doing that when your similarly-afflicted brother is friggin' attached to you, bearing witness to all your foibles, the two of you frequently not being in sync re attitudes towards the addiction. Man. I will say, though--and I suspect this will be a common reaction among readers--the narrative just isn't quite as gripping as Leo & Theodore. There's no getting around that. There are perhaps a few too many endless conversations with cardboard secondary characters, and there are times when it's hard not to think MAN OH MAN I GET THE PICTURE. It's worth persisting, though. It's quite touching in the end, and it's certainly hard to imagine a better commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous (I know some people have criticisms of AA and related groups; I really don't know enough to comment--it obviously helped Newlove immeasurably, however).

Overall, though, this is really something special, and quite unique in my experience. In his introduction, Newlove says he's sort of thinking about writing a third book about the twins, to be called The Higher Power. That doesn't seem to have happened, which on the one hand is a shame, but on the other, it's not clear where such a thing would have even gone. That title would seem to indicate that it's a further take on alcoholism, which seems sort of redundant: The Drunks ends with the characters in recovery, and it seems like this would have to involve them backsliding, which would just seem repetitive. I'd think that to complete the potential trilogy, you'd want to take the characters in a whole new direction. Still, I shouldn't second-guess; I'd love to have had the opportunity to see more of them.

Cheers to Tough Poets for the rerelease, although there's actually a part of me that's a bit wistful that it wasn't put out by a bigger press with more commercial clout, just because I think it deserves to be part of whatever literary canon we may have, and there's only so far that a micropress is likely to be able to take it. I mean, I love small presses to death, but there are definitely advantages to large ones.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Many thanks for posting this review of my double novel SWEET ADVERSITY which is essentially about my alcoholism--though I am not a Siamese twin like Leo-Teddy. I've just reread the novel for the first time in fifty years and am on the last seven pages, and quite thrilled by the storytelling and my memories here of the higher power of A.A. and my year fighting for sobriety and losing it and fighting on. At times I think this my best novel but I have published some terrifically satisfying other books of fiction and nonfiction. I am delighted that TOUGH POETS has rescued my work, as has CREATESPACE--though I think CREATESPACE has closed shop. Many thanks again to TOUGH POETS and Rick Shofar. .

4:57 PM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

Thanks for commenting here! I am truly honored. I look forward to seeking out more of your work in the future.

5:03 PM  

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