Because I’ve never been an addict myself, or had to deal with anyone else’s addiction in any meaningful way, it’s always been sort of an abstract concept. I’ve viewed addiction in much the same way I viewed cancer before my mom was diagnosed with it in 1995 – as a horrible problem that must be terrible to live with but whose various indignities and anxieties never seemed all that real. But then someone you care about is diagnosed with it, and all the little details that you never had to think about previously (scheduling events as mundane as errands in the “good” window after chemotherapy appointments; adjusting to a bland diet; being embarrassed by and helping others not be embarrassed by wigs and head wraps) suddenly become all too real. Addiction is, I imagine, much the same in this regard, and it’s to Roddy Doyle’s credit that Paula Spencer helped me see that in a way I never have before. The book tackles both addiction and cancer (although much more the former than the latter), but it does it in a way that strikes a pretty even balance between humor and pathos, ensuring it’s not just a relentless slog through misery.
Part of that description, though, is a little disingenuous of me. You hear “addiction story” and most likely think of Trainspotting or Less Than Zero or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or any number of memoirs written by personalities famous and not-famous alike, detailing the way they got hooked and (usually) eventually kicked their habit. Paula Spencer, by contrast, is very much a victory narrative, albeit a halting, tentative one. The title character is a 48-year-old recovering alcoholic, four months dry at the start of the book. She’s also a survivor of spousal abuse (see this book’s predecessor, 1996’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, for all the details), a housecleaner with four children whose husband Charlo was gunned down by the police after robbing a bank and taking a hostage. At the beginning she’s barely hanging on, still counting the months since her last drink:
The drink is only part of it. She’s coped well with the drink. She wants a drink. She doesn’t want a drink. She doesn’t want a drink. She fights it. She wins. She’s proud of that. She’s pleased. She’ll keep going. She knows she will.
Two of her children, Leanne (20) and Jack (16), live with her. Jack is the good kid, quiet and awkward, whose biggest problem is getting suspended for calling a teacher “useless” on ratemyteachers.com; Leanne, she fears (probably rightfully), is joining her in alcoholism. Her other two children, grown and with children of their own, are Nicola and John Paul. The heart of the book is watching Paula negotiate her relationships with these four, especially the three oldest, all whom remember her at her worst. And that’s one thing Doyle does remarkably well, something I’d never actually considered when it comes to addiction: How the recovering addict is essentially split in two to the people who care about him or her. There’s the “new” person who is trying to set each foot right on the road to recovery, but there’s also the “old” person who was duplicitous or manipulative or cruel or, in Paula’s case, occasionally violent herself. So while Paula’s family is happy to see her doing better, there’s also the memory of who she was, and the fear that she’ll return to that state. It’s a constant state of living in two places – two different times, really – at once, which has to be one of the unsettling things to do.
Paula also has two sisters, neither of whom she has ever been close to: Denise, who’s married and having an affair with a married man, and Carmela, around whom the cancer subplot revolves. The book captures a year in Paula’s life with these people as she struggles to get her life back on track. It isn’t a story that deals in melodrama or huge, cathartic sequences. Like life, Paula’s progress is charted hesitantly, in the way her relationship with her sisters improves, in an invitation to visit John Paul’s house, in her buying a stereo and the new U2 album. In contrast to one of my recent reviews, where I wrote that a bunch of stuff happens and none of it matters, Paula Spencer is a book where not much happens but it’s all important. And, crucially, sometimes it’s in the not happening that some of the biggest growth happens. You likely know those moments: the not-so-awkward silences with someone you care about; a meaningful glance; a conversation about music or the weather that carries the subtext of an epic poem.
It’s really just a lovely little book. It doesn’t have the impact of Doyle’s The Commitments or A Star Called Henry, but as a modest tale of a woman struggling to be good and make things right with the people she loves, Paula Spencer is as real, and as revelatory, as literature gets.
Rocketship – A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness (1996)