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Bottle Neck

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When booze becomes both your lover and your enemy

Drinking: A Love Story
By Caroline Knapp
Dial Press; 254 pages;$22.9

Reviewed by Kelly Luker

As alcoholism and recovery hit prime time in the '80s, tales of misery-lovin', parent-blamin', two-fisted drunks flooded the bookshelves. The authors of these tomes usually fell into one of three irredeemable pits--boozers who couldn't write, writers who didn't booze or, predominantly, men who could indeed write, and write well, about their addiction. The problem with this latter group is that men often approach their tales of drinking--and sobriety--like warriors. One imagines them around the campfire, regaling rapt listeners with wild escapades and near death experiences preceding their edge-of-the-precipice redemption.

But car crashes and jail stints are merely alcoholism's superficial details. Caroline Knapp, a well-respected columnist for Boston's alternative weekly, the Phoenix, recounts with astounding clarity a story most difficult to tell--that of an alcoholic's inner life. With unsparing self-honesty, Knapp illuminates a harrowing interior world--where lie upon lie is layered, forming an impenetrable bas-relief over a core shimmering with shame, humiliation and secrecy.

For every drunk who ends up on skid row, scores of others, like Knapp, live a seemingly ordered existence without DUIs, lost jobs, delirium tremors or explosive crises. Her mother an artist, her father an esteemed psychoanalyst, Knapp was born to a life of privilege and opportunity. She graduated from a good university and rose steadily in her field of journalism. All was well on the outside, so much so that some of her close friends were shocked when Drinking hit the shelves.

While drunk, Knapp was horseplaying with her friend's children and nearly dropped a 5-year-old. This is probably the worst of her exploits and the one that moves her to stop drinking. Tame stuff? Sure, for those who believe that outer conditions--dramatic situations--actually have the power to wake alcoholics from the slo-mo train wreck that is their lives. Instead, Knapp quite forcefully argues, change is more likely to arrive on the heels of that moment of clarity, a stark recognition that the bottle is demanding ever more control, more secrecy, more of the soul-sickening lies that succeed only in enlarging the hole inside that alcohol keeps promising to fill.

Some critics have faulted Knapp for embarking on this book project when she was less than a year sober, a time too fragile to announce to the world your recovery. Yet, for someone of Knapp's gifts, it appears to be the right decision. While it may be easy to recapture drunken exploits five or ten years down the line, time has a way of dulling the memories of those inner dialogues, the chronic deception that passes for life.

This is an excellent book for those interested in alcoholism told in a woman's voice, or those who favor just plain good writing. For anyone questioning this or her own relationship with alcohol, though, be forewarned. This book has the nasty potential to ruin your love affair with booze.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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