(Berkeley: Viva, 2011)
I guess we’re all familiar with writers who, no matter the names of characters and settings in their books, are always telling the same story. Alan Kaufman is something else again. In each of his memoirs: Jew Boy, Matches, and now Drunken Angel, he writes of his own life, sometimes even covering the same episodes, but with such violent shifts in emphasis it almost seems Kaufman is triplets, brothers who lived three different lives.
Jew Boy dealt magnificently with how he overcame growing up in an abusive household – with a mother who was a traumatized Holocaust survivor and a father who was a inveterate gambler – to become a celebrated writer. In this first book, there are gripping passages about his high school days and his pilgrimage to Germany’s death camps when he was on a reading tour. But as he retells these stories in Angel, we find that something mentioned on the margins of his earlier texts, that he liked his booze, is bigger than that. As Angel makes clear, all his early achievements were overshadowed by the fact that he systematically undermined them by grabbing a bottle and turning into an off-the-wall, raging drunk.
We know, for instance, from his first book that he went to Columbia. We don’t know, till now, that while he was there, after liquoring up, he got angry at a woman that dumped him, sought her out at a university gala and cocked her one in the jaw. We know from Matches that in Tel Aviv he stole a good friend’s wife while on leave from his army unit that was fighting in the 1982 Lebanon War. We don’t know that after the wife divorced her husband and followed Kaufman to the States, he made her life a misery due to his drunken shenanigans, which manifested as a growing paranoia. He describes it forcefully here:
[In my mind played] a hallucinated farce in which I saw myself before my torturers, blottoed and ridiculous, bound dangling from ropes, jeering and spitting into their faces. How ridiculous you are, I shrieked, to want to kill someone who has known only suffering his entire life, only lovelessness. Why in the world would you want to kill, of all people, the world’s loneliest man?
Obviously, Kaufman wouldn’t have written these three towering books if he was still on a bender. He kicked the alcohol habit, and this book charts his path to redemption, beginning with a chance meeting with another drunk in a cold midnight on a bench in New York's Tompkins Square Park and moving to twelve-step meetings in San Francisco where he befriends many a drunken angel. These are reformed drinkers who live to give service to others seeking escape from addiction. Why does he call them angels? “Because I believe that, in time, that is what we become in sobriety … a kind of flawed angel , without wings, that belongs to no religion but rather to a species of human heartbreak unlike any other known.”
Now, no matter what the different points of departure and slants to each of his works, there is one unshakeable element in each of Kaufman’s books. A comment once made about Malcolm Lowry will help me bring it out. It was said that what distinguished Lowry’s writing from that of other great English-language modernists; from, say, the experimental, cerebral brilliance of a Woolf or Joyce or from the collective portraits of a Faulkner or Dos Passos, was Lowry’s unsentimental, unflinching depth of feeling.
So, too, Kaufman’s trademark is that he wears his ravaged heart on his sleeve. Still, in using that last phrase, I would like to change its customary meaning, which generally refers to an author who is too open, too ready with the tears or shouts of joy. For Kaufman, it is almost the opposite. In passage after passage, we see the truths of the heart are hard won; and this, the psychic searching that is behind every emotion rendered, accounts for the book’s explosive, gripping caliber, both in terms of the solid resonance of the personal and social insights, which with the pages are full, and the ready flow of lyrical, wrenching prose, which, if I may use this metaphor, in each chapter, pours the reader a full measure of literary soul.