Drink Without the Dregs: No Hangover for Susan Cheever

Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker , by Susan Cheever. Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $23.

It’s not surprising the novelist Susan Cheever got entangled in the drinking habit very young. Her father was John Cheever, arguably the most accomplished short story writer America has produced, and certainly high on the list of its most accomplished drunkards.

By way of introducing us to a world in which the walls are streaked with shoe polish from guests falling down the stairs, a world in which visitors are frequently given a room to sleep off lunch until the following morning, Susan Cheever begins her memoir of drinking with a WASP cliché: the family martini recipe, which she learned from her grandmother at age 6. With braggadocio masquerading as contrition, she informs us that the key is to “just pass the [vermouth] bottle over the gin.” Ms. Cheever is not unaware that this also happens to be the recipe for transforming the ruling class of the most powerful nation on earth into its lowest-earning white ethnic group. But Note Found in a Bottle is less about the milieu of Yankee alcoholism than how a woman from such a milieu makes her way in the world of love and career.

At the heart of this book are Ms. Cheever’s three marriages–to Malcolm Cowley’s son Robert, New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins and radical-chic editor Warren Hinckle. (The first two are given only first names, but a biography of John Cheever will help you fill in the blanks.) Ms. Cheever implies her first marriage was driven largely by a desire to please her father. In Palma de Mallorca, she and Robert set themselves up as “writers” and did little but drink. (When Robert, suffering intestinal pains, was advised to lay off drink for a few weeks, Susan buttonholed the doctor: “You don’t mean wine too?”) They fought, and occasionally came to blows. But booze was implicated more in unfulfilled potential than in any of the out-and-out wreckage we’d associate with “alcoholism.” Back in the United States, their bookless, jobless lives looked much less glamorous. “With breathtaking speed, it seemed, we had gone from being a promising, talented young couple to a couple of has-beens,” Ms. Cheever writes.

But not for long. Ms. Cheever caught on with Newsweek and was soon making a play for the much older Mr. Tomkins. While a lover of champagne, Mr. Tomkins was a doting family man and very much under control. Their marriage was a fruitful time for Ms. Cheever, who wrote her first novel (“The prose seemed to burn right on the page”), had her first child, and moved into Julia Child’s house on the Côte d’Azur. Ms. Cheever also seemed to like the social set they traveled in, for here begins a marathon of literary- and art-world name-dropping that runs through Janet Maslin (Ms. Cheever’s sister-in-law), John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Roger Angell, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Massie (with whom she has a fling) and Francis Ford Coppola (who tells her–she forgets why–”you’re a good person”).

Though Ms. Cheever doesn’t say so, something other than booze is at the root of this marriage’s collapse. The problem was that, once she had Mr. Tomkins in the bag, he ceased to interest her. All three of Ms. Cheever’s husbands were married when she began dating them, and there is an exuberant sluttishness about her recounting of the times when she occasionally had three men in a day. “I didn’t know,” she lets drop darkly, “that promiscuity can be a symptom of clinical depression.”

Ms. Cheever wanted adventure. She drifted back into an on-again, off-again relationship with Warren Hinckle, who, long past his glory days as editor of the leftist Ramparts , was living an alcohol-clouded existence in San Francisco. They married and had a son. Mr. Hinckle was wild, romantic and irresponsible. “He agreed,” Ms. Cheever writes, “that we had a great love, that we weren’t like other people, that our love transcended the silly lives led by most people we knew.” It was perhaps because of the anarchy in his life that Ms. Cheever fell for him. She suspects that at some level it put her in mind of her father, since “every man I’ve been involved with has somehow been a shadow of his giant figure.”

All the same, Mr. Hinckle’s drinking began to alarm her, and she tried to arrange–without success–to check him into a detox center. In retrospect, she sees this as a projection of her own drinking problem.

“What alcohol does is hidden until the very end,” says Ms. Cheever. If so, how convenient for her. Because when we reach the catastrophic moment all drunkards must face, when the carefree illusions of youthful tippling expire in vomit, deceit and dishonor … she changes the subject. We surface in the present: Ms. Cheever informs us that she has found contentment in her two children and God, and hasn’t had a drink in five years.

It’s not surprising that she doesn’t want to share with us the gory details. But as long as she doesn’t, she’s asking us to commiserate over a life she’s basically bragging about. She goes easy on herself, and yet she used to be tougher, as she was with her father, whom she posthumously outed in a 1984 memoir.

Ms. Cheever lets on that sometime in the past decade, she decided to leave behind “all those terrible things, those long, sexy afternoons and those betrayals.” Unsurprisingly, she fails to offer much evidence of what’s so terrible about “long, sexy afternoons.” No–alcohol, as it appears in these pages, did some nifty things for Ms. Cheever, on top of the nifty things it does for normal drinkers. It helped her to play a distinctive role among unconventional and glamorous people. It still offers her a road into identity politics and victim-discourse that even a WASP can travel. Anyway, what would she set in the place of it? While Ms. Cheever claims to be riven with regret, she doesn’t name a single decision she’d take back, or a single one of her famous friends she’d ditch. Or even a single husband: “It’s true,” she says, “that I have had three marriages that ended, but these days I don’t remember them as failures.” Booze may indeed have wrecked her life, but there’s little evidence of it in this book.

Ms. Cheever cannot decide whether she wants to be judged as an adult or as a moral automaton. In fact, she wants it both ways. Credit as an adult for the saint I am; expiation as a moral automaton for the lousy things I do. In one bizarre episode from the waning days of her marriage to Mr. Tomkins, she ditches her 5-year-old daughter, who has come down with the chickenpox, to take off for Cuba with Warren Hinckle. Ms. Cheever explains it away through what sounds like a combination of recovery movement and recovered memory: “In my heart I was re-enacting a separation of mother and daughter that resonated from before I could remember.” Ms. Cheever is using alcoholism to separate herself from her human failings: The love for my daughter is me; the blowing town to dance on the beach in Havana is my disease.

The fault for this moral muddle may lie in the way people quit drinking, especially in this country. Ms. Cheever is a convert to Alcoholics Anonymous, which holds that recovery from alcoholism is contingent on recognizing that one is “powerless over alcohol,” and that one’s body and mind are wired to send urges to drink in the most crafty and cunning ways. Obviously, the idea of powerlessness as promulgated by A.A. is not limited to booze. How can it be? If you are just a machine of addictive trickery, then every turn of your mind, every bit of your reason, is just a ruse to get you back on the bottle. Your love of Chinese food is just your alcohol addiction providing a pretext to get you to the Wang Hung Palace where the bartender knows you. Your hatred of the government is just projected “anger” that you can’t drink as much as you want. Worst of all, any trust in your willpower, your intelligence, your maturity to get you out of this problem is “denial.”

What’s missing is the morality that’s necessary if one is to draw any meaning out of drinking. This needn’t be a sackcloth-and-ashes moralism; even the morality of André Gide in Corydon , in which he answered accusations of pederasty by recasting his vice as a virtue, would be welcome. (Heavy drinking is long overdue such a defense.) Without some such moral benchmark, Ms. Cheever’s transformation looks like the opportunism of another American baby boomer who’s gone from left-wing libertine to right-wing prude at–how convenient!–the very moment her own appetites begin to wane.