Thursday, June 28, 2012

Recovery: Way Beyond Going on the Wagon

Elizabeth Zelvin

My new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my third novel about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his two sidekicks, Jimmy, who’s been sober in AA for many years, and Barbara, who goes to Al-Anon and whom I always describe as a world-class codependent. I’ve also written four stories about the trio, the most recent of which, “Death Will Tank Your Fish,” was a Derringer nominee this year.

I’m certainly not the first mystery author to explore the theme of recovery. The great Lawrence Block’s tough-guy protagonist Matt Scudder got sober more than twenty years ago. In recent books, he’s maintained his sobriety and attended an occasional AA meeting. Scudder’s sobriety has the ring of authenticity. Yet Block still takes readers for a walk on the dark side. Far from finding a new family in AA or a spiritual path through the Twelve Steps, Matt still meets his best friend, a career criminal, in a bar. In his 2011 book, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Block finally wrote his long overdue love letter to AA. But to do so, he took Matt back to his first year of sobriety—the period when an alcoholic’s recovery is all about not drinking.

Another fine writer, James Lee Burke, presents New Orleans homicide detective Dave Robichaux in novels frequently described as “brooding,” “dark,” and “gritty.” I suspect that Robichaux is depressed. In one of J.A. Jance’s J.P. Beaumont books, she has J.P, investigating far from home, meet a suspect’s sister for dinner when he doesn’t really want to because the only other thing on in town that night is an AA meeting. Any real-life alcoholic with any sobriety to speak of would love to find an AA meeting in a strange town. The second he walked in the door, he’d be home.

Alcoholic fictional cops and private eyes still outnumber their recovering counterparts, even though many writers cite “alcoholic detective” as one of the stereotypes they want to avoid. My Bruce is an amateur sleuth. I made him one because I didn’t know any cops or private eyes when I started the series. That has changed, thanks to the mystery community, my clinical work as a therapist, and the Internet. I’ve talked to a thousand cops about post-traumatic stress and even hugged a few, in addition to tapping their expertise on guns and police procedure.

But the most important difference between Bruce and a lot of his fictional counterparts is that the drama of the continuing series arc is not the struggle with booze. To tell the truth, after twenty-five years as an addiction treatment professional, I find that struggle boring. What inspires and moves me is the ongoing recovery process, in which, having laid down the enormous psychological defense of the alcohol or whatever addictive substance or compulsive behavior serves the same purpose, the recovering person experiences a remarkable transformation. After the first book, Bruce is uncovering his feelings, trying to mend his relationships, finding other issues that need attention, and growing enormously as a person as the series unfolds.

This does not mean that Bruce doesn’t do a lot of kicking and screaming about having to change. Nor does he lay down all his defenses. If he weren’t still a smart-ass, he wouldn’t be any fun. If you think he can’t possibly have any fun if he can never take a drink, that’s what every active alcoholic thinks, a belief that every recovering alcoholic has to unlearn in order to stay sober. Barbara does a lot of backsliding too in her addiction to rescuing and controlling others and minding other people’s business. I have good reasons for that. For one thing, her insatiable curiosity drives the investigations, along with her conviction that sleuthing keeps Bruce’s mind off drinking. For another, it’s her lapses that make her funny and save her from preachiness. Besides, nobody can abstain perfectly from nosiness and a compulsion to help. You can’t put a cork in it the way you can in a bottle.

I think readers like Barbara not only because she’s so human and screws up in such comical ways, but also for her candor, the willingness to admit her mistakes that lies at the heart of twelve-step recovery. And in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, I give her an addiction of her very own. Bruce even gets to laugh at her—and in hindsight at himself—for being afraid that recovery will mean no fun ever again. They learn that’s not true at all. And so, I hope, will readers.


Tressa Armstead said...

This is a fantastic deconstruction of character development and a great example of how novels can not only entertain but also help readers with real problems.

Readers going through their own recovery can see that they aren't alone; that people recover in different ways; and, as you say, that they can still have fun and be healthy at the same time.

Great work!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks so much, Tressa. :)