In the world of memoir, drunken and drugged adolescences and young adulthoods reign supreme. But rarely do memoir writers make their drunken and drugged stumblings compelling enough to maintain the reader's interest beyond a few distasteful episodes. Last year gave us two exceptions: Augusten Burroughs' Dry and James Frey's A Million Little Pieces both rose above the subject genre with razor-sharp writing.
With Smashed, 24-year-old memoirist Koren Zailckas raises the bar yet again, delineating the excessive, compulsive drinking of her youth and digging below the surface of disgust and humiliation to explore what drives young girls to drown themselves in alcohol. Zailckas is smart and articulate, and she escapes the memoirist's potential trap of self-pity and self-absorption by relying on pained honesty and a reflectiveness that sees well beyond the maudlin trappings of many of her binges.
From age 14, when she took her first slug of Southern Comfort, to age 16, when she had her stomach pumped following a night of binge drinking, Zailckas delineates her drinking career through college and into her first year beyond college, never failing to place the excess in the proper context of American consumer culture and tolerance for alcohol consumption. Drinking defines her relationships with other girls and submerges the emotional challenges she faces beneath a warm, woozy blanket. The picture turns decidedly ugly when she boldly describes blackouts, bouts of sickness and moments of complete self-loss while under the influence.
Such precision and insight are rare in an author as young as Zailckas, but her closeness to the subject and her remarkable lucidity illuminate Smashed throughout.
On the other end of the spectrum, Susan Shapiro's Lighting Up might just as well have remained the author's diary for its near complete self-absorption and lack of insight into addiction except at the surface level. A 27-year heavy smoker, Shapiro goes to a Manhattan addiction doctor to quit her habit, and she finds that once she shakes cigarettes, she replaces them with booze, then replaces booze with food, etc. Eventually she gives up everything but her dependency on her therapist and the second half of the book focuses on their sessions, revealing the author's painful need to flash humanity.
Shapiro is a skilled writer, something she reminds the reader of over and over, listing her credentials lest we think she's merely a self-indulgent flake. That she's a self-indulgent talented writer doesn't make this substance abuse memoir any more palatable. It disappears from memory as quickly as a puff of smoke.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas (Viking/Penguin: New York) $21.95/hardcover
Koren Zailckas will read from and sign Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood
Thursday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m.
Tattered Cover Cherry Creek, 2955 E. First Ave., Denver
Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex by Susan Shapiro (Delacorte Press: New York) $22/hardcover