Drinking in America
By Susan Cheever
272 pages, $28
By Emily Simon
Susan Cheever has gone into the family business.
Her father, John, was one of the most important American writers of the 20th century, gaining his renown with short fiction depicting the yearnings, tensions and picturesque strangulations of suburban life. Susan has chosen to carry the family torch into the 21st century, mostly along the path of nonfiction – biography, history, memoir – and she continues the conversation about many of her father’s themes. But where the father carried a paintbrush into the woods, the daughter carries a buzz-saw. Whether this change is for good or ill depends on how you feel about trees.
Susan Cheever writes mostly about art, families and alcoholism, with a concentration on “great men.” Her latest, “Drinking In America,” is about all of the above, as she takes on the role of alcohol in American history. Cheever is smart, perceptive and disciplined, but her writing style is dogged and unimaginative, and “Drinking In America” reads much like a graduate thesis: premise, supporting argument, restatement of premise.
Her main premise this time is this: “American history has been shaped by drinking in ways historians rarely acknowledge.” She’s right. She proves it. A few chapters are compelling. But the book is tremendously uneven and constantly provokes the question of whether or not it should have been written in the first place, which is an unfortunate fate for a book that argues that it really should have been written already.
Cheever’s next premise is that throughout our history, America swings between two poles: “drunkest country in the world” (which is a bold statement – “hi, Ireland! What’s up, Russia?”) and “uptight Puritan temperance.” Her aim throughout “Drinking in America” is to explore history through this lens, noting which events are the result of which of America’s moods.
The main appeal of “Drinking in America” is that it offers an excellent collection of anecdotes. What’s less appealing is Cheever’s tendency to be a little bit of a tease. She blazes her lead with “America exists because of alcohol! The Pilgrims landed where they did, instead of in Virginia where they were headed, because they ran out of beer!” But she then squanders her narrative momentum with a few chapters of plodding history that have little to do with alcohol at all. That’s an odd way to start your book about the importance of alcohol, if you’re trying to keep readers from putting it down.
Cheever’s oscillating voice also grates in the chapter on John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She puts forth the fascinating but fairly incendiary premise that JFK would be alive today had his Secret Servicemen not been out late drinking the night before. But instead of mounting a powerful supporting argument, she just describes what she’s discovered and leaves it all hanging, bereft of the rich historical context in which this electrically charged event already sits. It’s a great idea for a chapter featuring a few fun facts, but it ultimately fails to convince, and comes across as almost petulant – like the whine of a precocious child who feels as though her vision of the truth is chronically ignored.
Other eras fare better under the weight of Cheever’s thesis. Her Nixon chapter in particular is alternately horrifying and delightful, and paints a compelling picture of the monstrous complexity of a “great man” – which can, in another light, be seen as a compassionate picture of an evil one. Nixon, as seen here, was a lightweight who experienced a complete abandonment of reason and judgment after one or two drinks, and Henry Kissinger was his long-suffering “Al-Anon” trying to minimize the consequences. Is this good history? Debatably. But it would make one heck of an HBO-style dramedy.
If Susan Cheever were a better and more surprising writer in her own right, the matter of her father would have been dispensed with upon publication of her first book, and her parentage would by now be relegated to anecdote or biographical flourish. But “Cheever fille” seems to cherish the connection in her readers’ mind to “Cheever pere.” She refers to him frequently, including a chapter here on how our most treasured American writers were by and large an aberrant cluster of tragic drunks (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, her father, etc.) This chapter certainly belongs in the book – it’s relevant, and clearly the subject with which she’s most comfortable – but she can’t quite find her footing as she tells the story. She’s a witness and a victim, a fan and an intimate, a stern reporter and a hopelessly biased audience. Cheever seems happy to acknowledge herself as the public face of the consequences of accepted private social ills, but can’t quite make powerful use of her unique role. Her path was forged for her, by alcoholism, closeted sexuality, American class and artistic struggle, and she’s going to write about that until … well, until she’s done, it appears. Or until she is no longer published. “Drinking in America” is not one of her more necessary dispatches.
Many of us who regularly note the effects of alcohol on human life will be intrigued by the question, “hey, what would all of this look like if everyone weren’t so damn wasted all the time?” Alcohol can bring out our saintliness or our sins, embolden our greatness or permit our inexcusable ugliness. Cheever’s best point is woefully undersold: that alcohol is the ultimate American drug, and that America when personified looks and acts a lot like an alcoholic – sensitive, charming, exceptional, bombastic, capable of stunningly bad judgment, and often willfully ignorant of its flaws.
Our best historians, our best biographers, tell a compelling story. The job Cheever sets out to do here isn’t so vastly different from that in which her father excelled. “Drinking in America” is full of compelling ideas, but it suffers from a lack of narrative power.
That Susan Cheever is the literal heir to John Cheever makes it all the more frustrating that she isn’t more successful as his literary heir. And so her readers find themselves in the regrettable position of knowing that no one is better positioned than Cheever to reveal this particular view of America, while wishing that she were just a little better at it.
Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised freelance writer now living in California.