How to Become a Successful (Recovering) Alcoholic – A Book Review

When I read this book, “How To Become a Successful (Recovering) Alcoholic”, my mind wandered to a little hotel room in France, the unexpected last stop for Anthony Bourdain. Let me back up, I’m part of a little group on Goodreads which reads and reviews each other’s books. Not for money, but for the solidarity of knowing that there are others out there with the same passion and for a chance to connect with strangers over something we all love. I do a lot of book reviews as part of my experience of reading – of living, and I find them everywhere: some are linked to by articles I find intriguing; others mentioned in the annexes of a book I enjoy; and still others come from a particular genre over which I am obsessing (right now its pre-revolutionary Russian literature) – and of course those by authors who I just love (W. Somerset Maugham). It is amazing to meet so many incredible people through the pages of their books and novels. Some are dead, but others – like J.P. Willson, are very much alive and still fighting.

Back to “(Recovering Alcoholic)” and Bourdain – because J.P. Willson is also a chef. Willson did not kill himself, as Bourdain did. Bourdain wasted the last third of his life, literally. Willson, in his own words, wasted the middle. Willson spends a lot of his book, which is his story of how he went about freeing himself from the demon liquor, wondering of what he might have been capable had he not been spending his energy and money in pursuit of a vice; I wonder what Bourdain might have done with the last third of his life had he not decided it wasn’t worth it. Willson’s drug of choice was alcohol, Bourdain was supposedly clean but had suffered from heroin addiction in the past (and probably alcohol as well, he certainly drank a lot on his shows).

Addiction. What family does not have a story of somebody who has struggled with this particular issue; and what family does not wonder “What could have been” about the stories of their loved ones. An alcoholic father staring blankly at the TV screen; a drug-addled son. The chapter I liked best was Chapter 11; where Willson talks a little bit about how he got into his conundrum. There is no one path to addiction; people arrive in that prison from all walks of life, from all races and faiths. Men and women, sinner and saint – and Chapter 11 told Willson’s personal story, as well as the anguish of his father. One anecdote, when his father – after a particularly nasty drinking bout in adolescence – put him in the car and drove him to skid row, trying to show him where he would end up if he did not control himself. Yet end up there he did; and I can only imagine his father’s anguish, for I have a little boy as well.

There is nothing sadder than addiction.

Joy – that is what Willson discovers when he finally pulls his head from his bottle to look around. An amazing world – where you can paraglide with the condors, hike ancient trails, read olden books, visit cathedrals where great events were held and that still radiate with the energy of purpose and power. Eat amazing food – simple and expensive. Live a life you can remember, as the song goes. Bourdain knew all this, yet still took his own life; Willson is just now learning it, but after a destroyed life it is hard to afford (both in terms of money, and loved ones with whom to share it with).

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories,” – Ray Bradbury. That is hard for all of us, mired as we are in everyday life. Its easy to look for escape in something – food, hate, indifference: a bottle. Life is scary, it’s sometimes easier to invite your worst fears to come true; because after that there is nothing to be afraid of. But what do we miss? I wish J.P Willson well and hope he stays the course, to live a life of wonder. For those who are struggling with this pernicious demon – read his book and learn about a rough guy who might have been great but instead became lost, and how he rediscovered himself.

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About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright, author of four novels. The most recent is "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps. Other works include "Lords of Misrule", "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio".
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