Addiction memoirs, for the most part, have flat third acts. Their writers get sober. That’s cheerful news for them, but less so for us. They were so interesting to read about when they were knocking over chairs.
Sarah Hepola’s new memoir, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” doesn’t escape this happy/sad fate. God and yoga and AA meetings and healthy victuals arrive to fill the beer-bottle-shaped hole in her soul.
The first two-thirds of “Blackout,” however, are simply extraordinary. Hepola’s electric prose marks her as a flamingo among this genre’s geese. She has direct access to the midnight gods of torch songs, neon signs, tap beer at a reasonable price, cigarettes and untrammeled longing.
Hepola, who is 40 and an editor at Salon, grew up in Dallas. At drinking, she was something of a child prodigy, a Tiger Woods or a Yo-Yo Ma. By 7, she was sneaking sips of Pearl Light from the half-empty cans her parents left in the refrigerator.
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She went to the University of Texas at Austin, then worked for alternative weeklies and small newspapers, becoming music critic of The Dallas Observer. There was some feminist fire fueling her long nights at bars.
“I wore clothes that stank of hamper and Marlboro Lights, and it seemed to me that men got off on this new uncorseted persona,” she writes, adding: “Death to the girl of the nervous fidgets, behold the woman with a beer in her hand and one endless cigarette.”
Hepola’s writing is strong when she writes about the science of blacking out, something she increasingly did the more she drank. “In a blackout, a person is anything but silent and immobile,” she writes. “You can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of your past.”
At first, she treats her blackouts with humor. She moons people in bumper-to-bumper traffic, “which is a little bit like mooning someone and then being stuck in a grocery line with them for the next 10 minutes.” Then the events become less comical. She wakes beside strange men. “I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care,” she says, “but I woke up a person who cared enormously.”
Hepola’s memoir peels off in many directions. She is a sensitive writer about female friendship. She is good on the sexual politics of wrapping yourself in pop culture and sarcasm: “No one can break your heart if they don’t know it.”
As a form, addiction memoirs are permanently interesting because they’re an excuse to crack open a life. Hepola’s book moves to a top shelf in this arena.
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget
Grand Central Publishing, 230 pages