The best books about addiction achieve their excellence, in part, because their authors realize the genuine enormity of their subject mattter: the search for love, oblivion, mystic transport and/or transcendence through sex or intoxicants, or through the adrenalin rush our own bodies can produce, is ultimately a search for God. They are books about the vertical urgency within us; they are letters to God, or letters raging against the fact that there is no God. They are books about those for whom community, coming of age, family life, physical pleasures, and what the late Hunter Thompson called "contentment" are not nearly enough.
Everyone has his or her favorite work on the subject. One of mine is the appropriately titled Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson's cult collection of connected short stories, later made by Alison Maclean into a very faithful film adaptation. The first chapter ends with a furious cry after the hitchhiking protagonist survives a car wreck that kills everyone with whom he is riding except an infant and his mother; and the last chapter ends in a nursing home where he has gotten a job, through his halfway-house program, among the lame, the halt, the senile, the spastic, the Tourette's shouters, and the man and wife who share a room but no longer know each other's names. Similarly, so estranged has Johnson's protagonist become from humanity itself that he thinks to mentiontwicethat "it was part of my job to touch people."
While detoxing at Seattle General Hospital, Johnson's cinematic stand-in shares a room with an unsmiling character played by Dennis Hopper, who finds it less delightful than his bunkmate that this is "a playpen...[where] they're pumping Haldol by the quart" to keep the patients docile and pleasantly high. The older Hopper knows the hospital medication will make it that much easier for him to resume the real thing once he leaves, and he's too old to go around on the wheel another time or two, unlike the Johnson character, who hasn't, as yet, suffered being tied up in wet sheets or being shot by two of his own wives. When he assures Hopper that they're both fine, that there's plenty of time to sit back and enjoy things in Seattle General, the latter fixes him with a gimlet eye and points out the dark scar in his cheek: "Talk into here." "Talk into your bullet hole," the protagonist asks, incredulously. "Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I'm fine."
A.L. Kennedy's Paradise (Knopf, $25) is more comparable to Johnson's book, and to the similarly genius-level novels of Kate Braverman, especially Lithium for Medea, than to the current writing about addiction, for example, by Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace. To reiterate, these last two write about drugs and the superflux of alcohol; Kennedy, like Johnson and Braverman, seems to write straight from the condition of being high. Which, of course, is impossible: all three are lucid to the point of pain. Paradise is gorgeous, sorrowful, comic, and perversely, paradoxically feminine, making the lovely cut-crystal tumbler on the cover, a Scottish landscape refracted inside, the most fitting of images. Especially since the glass appears to be sitting on a rough-hewn, government-constructed cement picnic table, and the glass is smudged, not so much stained as apparently unwashed.
Paradise, like Jesus' Son and Lithium for Medea, has elements of romance gone awry. But it's a strangely more solitary book, which allows us deeper access into the mind of a female addict and melds us so unremittingly with her psyche that we not only begin to think the way she does, we think there is no other proper way of thinking. To this end, Kennedy deploys gorgeous modulations of language, from the drunk's slur to tropes for self-disgust to metaphors for hope to the poet's go-for-broke device upon which Braverman relies heavily in all of her novels: repetition. One chapter, in which the protagonist's weaselly boyfriend comes to her place of employmenta bar, of courseto break up with her, opens with a paragraph that serves as foreshadowing and a locus of dread: "I am cutting lemon slices: thin half-circles, notched to fit on the lip of a glass. No one likes doing this, because it stings. You think you're intact, not even a paper cut, but the lemon juice will always search out something, sneak in and bite." By the end of the chapter, these same sentences have different, and even more painful, reverberations.
The jacket copy, which includes strong recommendations from Gail Caldwell of The Boston Globe and Richard Ford, makes me embarrassed to report that Ms. Kennedy, who, in her black-leather-jacketed author photo looks well able to hold her own with Mr. Hopper in his wilder roles, has written five previous novels, none of which I've ever heard. I can't think of a better place to start, however, than Paradise. If I've been vague about the book's details, it's because the book's emotional momentum derives from its tone and its descriptions of a drunk's various states of mind and body, not any conventional notion of "plot"the subversion of which, much discussed in feminist criticism, is something else Kennedy shares with Braverman. I've also been vague because I remain under the spell of this novel, which states in no uncertain terms that paradise, no matter how clearly we see it in altered states, always remains blurry when we think it's close to our grasp. Sometimes it requires touch to get our attention. Sometimes it requires blood sacrifice. Sometimes it takes an actual nail driven through our feet.