Fifteen million Americans a year are plagued with alcoholism. Five million of them are women. Many of them, like Caroline Knapp, started in their early teens and began to use alcohol as "liquid armor," a way to protect themselves against the difficult realities of life.
Caroline Knapp started drinking when she was 14, and spent almost 20 years as an alcoholic. Throughout the 1980s she maintained a good front, holding down a high-pressure job at the Boston Phoenix and keeping her addiction under wraps. Much of the time she managed to hide it even from herself: "You know and you don't know. You know and you won't know, and as long as the outsides of your life remain intact -- your job and your professional persona -- it's very hard to accept that the insides, the pieces of you that have to do with integrity and self-esteem, are slowly rotting away." This acceptance didn't come to Knapp until the early 1990s, when she finally entered a rehab program. Drinking, then, is a tale of recovery, with the emphasis on Before rather than After. When Knapp sticks to her own story, her writing is lucid and uncontaminated by self-pity. Her account of the way that alcohol "travels through families like water over a landscape" convinces us by its very specificity. Often, however, Knapp is unsure of whether she wants to write a literary memoir or a more general discussion of alcoholism. Over and over she interrupts herself to splice in statistics and vignettes she's collected from other drinkers, and while she delivers this stuff with requisite professionalism, it robs the book of its focus. Her story, she seems to suggest, approximates those of the other 15 million alcoholics in America. But approximations are exactly what we don't want in (as Knapp herself calls it) a love story. -- Salon