Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Whiskey's Children

By Jack Erdmann and Larry Kearney
ISBN 1-57566 305 8

Reviewed by Charlene C.

This is a book that hit me so hard, I read it in two sittings. Jack Erdmann, former salesman, presently an author and lecturer in San Francisco, captures the pure hell that is alcoholism with wit, grace and brutal honesty. Working with Larry Kearney, a poet and novelist, he relates the history of the Erdmann family, his great grandfather Louis, dead of DT's at 56, his grandfather, Arthur, who made his wine and beer in the basement, and his great uncle, Emil, who sold his father's Colt pistols for a pint of rye.
Erdmann does not cast the blame for his affliction on his ancestors. Rather, "I don't want anyone to think that this the story of a child abused by a family - it isn't - it is the story of a family abused by alcohol." And the alcohol takes him to dark places, to drunk tanks, crisis centers where the orderlies look like bouncers, to empty train stations where the sun is always going down.
We get a sense of a jazzman's life in the early Twenties: "bathtub gin, speakeasies and open touring cars at night with empties clanking on the floor." His father ran with the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Beiderbecke and Teagarden. Men who played and drank hard. We are shown the terrible paradoxes of his father, on one hand he is capable of beating his son, on the other he patiently teaches his son the words to "My Wild Irish Rose". His mother, too, a complex woman, soft and frivolous on the outside but with a tough core, which stands firm in the midst of the chaos. Even in genteel middle-class neighbourhoods, brutality, fueled by alcohol, blithely takes place behind lace curtains.
The story moves along like a movie, sometimes in soft focus, sometimes raw and jittery. The lines of reality are blurred, run into each other, get smudged by hallucinations, paranoia and the all encompassing need for that next drink. The obsession simply takes over an alcoholic's life. Erdmann says: "..for anyone born with the disposition, the first drink will open him up like a flower, physically and emotionally, and he'll keep coming back for more. The fact is alcohol is a chemical and its effects are cold, mechanical, and predictable. When you begin drinking alcoholically, you get on a train. You neither grow nor learn emotionally, you just ride. The last station is hell. And when you get there, you remember you left behind tickets for your children."
One excerpt that sums up the terrible damage alcoholism does to families:.."it's always the same--the same goddamn pain romanticized and trivialized, the dully accepted. It wires families together for generations, the children learning to keep their shoulders tense against the random shocks. They think it must be "their" fault. And then "they" raise children who have tense shoulders and chests full of jangling fear and grief. None of it's necessary. It's time to stop."
In "Whiskey's Children", it's all there: self-loathing, blind repetition throughout the generations, false starts, rationalizations and utter exhaustion. The constant sense of a life put on hold, in limbo, in between train stations. The healing begins when another drunk puts out an albeit shaky hand to one who still suffers .."those who have nothing share the only substance they can find." Call it empathy, call it the kindness of strangers or simply call it as Erdmann does, "visible grace." This is a convincing story of rehabilitation, the reconciliation of a scarred and broken family, an inspiring chronicle of one man's return from the hell that is alcoholism.

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