Booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other kinds of noise.
Kristi Coulter’s essay “Enjoli”, named after a perfume ad indicating women should be able to work and still keep it sexy for their men, got a lot of traction online and led to this essay collection, loosely centered around the theme of Coulter’s decision to quit drinking. She writes from the perspective of the clarity that comes with not being under alcohol’s influence, and that’s undeniably a strong angle. She observes with fresh eyes what she’d been missing around her previously, including life’s harsh realities that now have to be faced “without wine to erase each day”.
Coulter’s voice is direct, honest and even confessional, and starkly open about her flaws. It’s not written in a way that begs attention or sympathy, and I liked that. She shows much of her own progression through recovery from alcohol addiction, dealing un-dulled with career stress and sexism in a high-powered workplace and what it all means for her life and marriage. She includes amusing anecdotes of the activities she tries in order to refocus herself from the habits and rituals of drinking, like throwing herself into running.
I liked “Enjoli”, but I think Coulter shows even better work throughout the collection than the essay that made her name. It did open my eyes to how absolutely saturated our culture can be with alcohol – and especially the way it’s marketed to women, casually incorporated in so many parts of everyday life. When she comes up with so many examples, it blows your mind and none of them are too unfamiliar. How difficult that must be, to navigate the world recovering from an addiction that’s offered seemingly everywhere around you.
Sometimes I was a bit skeptical – at a work event, feeling awkward without a drink (understandable) she finds that the bartender can’t even serve her water. A bar doesn’t have soda water? Order an actual soda then. Maybe I was annoyed because I didn’t drink for years, just because I didn’t like it, and although people do treat you oddly or suspiciously sometimes, it was never not an option to order a Diet Coke, even if only to have something in your hand at an awkward event. With so many powerful examples of alcohol’s ubiquitousness, it felt odd to dramatically focus a scene on something like this.
So I wavered here and there, as is fairly standard for essay collections, but ultimately Coulter’s writing and quick sense of humor won me over. Her humor is a big plus throughout, often acerbic but on point, whether describing her soused days or the surprises of everyday life that accompany sobriety.
It has some drawbacks – she mentions frequently that she makes a lot of money working for a big company (quick Googling: it’s Amazon, but she never mentions it by name, despite descriptions of and powerful scenes from the corporate culture.) But it just feels uncomfortable to read multiple mentions of being a high earner, even if it’s not done in a spiteful or bragging way. There’s an unmistakable element of privilege that at times verges on being awkwardly unacknowledged, but the end effect I took from it was that this is an example of addiction’s indiscriminate reach – even rich, white, comfortably stable in life and relationship white ladies fall prey too.
A huge plus is that she has an MFA in writing, so unlike many memoirs coming from people in unrelated careers (although she was a writer for Amazon, but writing for a corporation is obviously different than the creativity afforded by personal essays) this one is well written – never dull, and generally able to hold my interest even on topics I couldn’t care less about, like how she threw herself into running after quitting drinking. Her observations make it worthwhile.
From “Enjoli”, the essay that apparently went viral (I’d never heard of it, not that I’m the barometer for these things) she describes being at a pool at the same time as a wasted bachelorette party:
It is so nice on this side of the pool, where the book I’m reading is a letdown and my legs look too white and the ice has long since melted in my glass and work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that. Sober. I never expected to make it to this side of the pool. I never thought I’d get to be here.
In “Through the Desert, Repenting” she writes a list of all the things you don’t have to do if you don’t want to while recovering, including
You do not have to answer the phone or respond to email. If you do, you do not have to tell the truth to anyone who asks how you are.
From “Do You Have a Drinking Problem?”, a tongue-in-cheek piece styled as a quiz with questions like:
When other people leave wine in their glasses, you
– Finish it when they’re not looking.
– Get annoyed because you can’t refill yours until they finish theirs and you really need to refill yours.
– Want to cry because some people are obsessed with astronomy or civil rights or God, and you’re obsessed with this.
I read over that last one so many times, it just spoke to me. Much of what Coulter writes isn’t exclusive to alcoholism, but rather speaks to anyone who’s struggled with addiction or even fixations of any kind. There’s a point where you completely despair wondering why the hell this is what it is for you, this is what life laid out for you. I was so struck by that. I think there’s a lot of writing here that will speak to and similarly strike people who have struggled with addiction, compulsion, eating disorders, etc. Coulter has done really excellent work in pulling back the curtain on her own struggle, and holding up a mirror to her life pre- and post-drinking that I think many others will be able to see themselves in.
There are no amber waves of grain in my life, and I don’t think much about whether I belong on this landmass; I just want to belong to the day as it forms around me. Or when I’m feeling ambitious, to the city.
Revealing experiences of sobriety and the rough road it took to get there, from a witty, smart, and empathetic voice, sure to speak to many others within the same realm of experience. 3.5/5
Nothing Good Can Come From This: Essays
by Kristi Coulter
published August 7, 2018 by FSG Orginals
I received an advance copy for unbiased review courtesy of the publisher.