Ernest Hemingway made it look manly. Dylan Thomas made it look artistic. Patsy and Edina made it look funny. But Heather King makes alcoholism look like a slow descent into madness and torture. In Parched (Penguin, 288 pp., $19.95), the author recounts her pained adolescence among a lovingly imperfect family and a suburban lifestyle that somehow seemed less boring after a few drinks. By law school, she notes, "I didn't need a whole lot of information to make decisions. Are you male? Let's make out. Is it booze? Let's drink it."
There's nothing here like the exoticism of Fitzgerald sipping cocktails on the Riviera. Here's King's version of the glamour of alcoholism: "When I came to in the morning and there was nothing left from the night before but a glass of warm beer with cockroaches floating on top, I scooped out the cockroaches and drank the beer." She befriends a man who passes out for two days, lying on his own arm so long he causes irreparable nerve damage.
Most of Parched is an uneasy memoir of King's sordid drinking days, but the reader knows from the beginning that the author must have conquered alcoholism or she wouldn't have finished the book. The inevitable family intervention and her experience at a treatment center could have turned the novel into a self-help, daytime-talk-show, triumph-over-addiction story, but King avoids the clichés in favor of self-deprecating humor. When a nurse shows her a picture of a crying clown and tells her that she is laughing on the outside but crying on the inside, King responds, "A clown painting! If that wasn't retarded, I didn't know what was." She doesn't buy into the group-hug, 12-easy-steps doctrine, and probably never will.
But the treatment worked, and 18 years later Heather King is a published author and NPR commentator. The woman who once scoffed at nurses who labeled her a chronic abuser of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and LSDwondering, "How could I be a chronic user of cocaine when I only did it three or four times a week?"has written a memoir that will have you saying either, "This book is about me," or "This book could have been about me." Both are equally terrifying, and equally human.
The author will sign copies of Parched at 7 p.m. on June 27 at Borders on West End.
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