By THOMAS MOODY
Whether it’s a few pints after work at O’Neill’s in Maspeth, a boilermaker at Donovan’s in Woodside on a weekend or a sloe gin fizz at the End of the World, Queens has a thriving bar scene. For many, alcohol is a social glue; a drink is merely an excuse to catch up with friends and family.
But when does a healthy drinking culture become harmful to those who maintain its vitality? New York has some of the highest rates of binge-drinking in the country. A 2016 study from the city’s Health Department found that nearly 30 percent of New Yorkers were binge drinkers, with 25 percent of Queens adults consuming five or more drinks in one sitting, at least once a month.
Kristi Coulter’s new book of essays Nothing Good Can Come from This explores what it is like to leave such a drinking culture. In pieces titled “Do You Have a Drinking Problem?” and “How to be a Moderate Drinker,” Coulter examines the lines between social drinker and functioning alcoholic, with the knowledge that for the majority of her adult life, she has been the latter.
In the essay “A Life in Liquids,” in which she traces her biography in years and drinks (Gin and Tonic, 1990; Perrier-Jouet, 1995) she writes “Sazerac, 2008. Barack Obama is elected president. Your neighborhood pub goes off the rails with joy and disbelief and the chance to hug strangers. The next morning, wincing with a hangover but smiling, you tell John you’ve resolved to drink less. ‘If America can change, then so can I,’ you say, and then you do! You change for two days!”
The success of these essays rests on the book’s opening piece of memoir, “Enjoli.” Set in the first summer of her sobriety, Coulter quickly comes to realize that middle-class America is drenched in alcohol, and that everyone around her is, in her words, tanked.
“I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. At first I tried to avoid it by skipping parties and happy hours and dinners out. But even a social recluse has to buy food and go to work, and it turns out those are now danger zones, too. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries!”
In particular, Coulter notices the women around her are “super double tanked.” They are toasting with champagne at viewings of the film Magic Mike, and guzzling wine at baby showers held in her local nail salon. Her newfound sobriety triggers her to ask why this is so, and the answer that she arrives at is as perceptive as it is unsettling: “…there’s no easy way to be a woman, because there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing that you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.” Couture is referencing a pervasive misogyny, the type that goes unnoticed or disregarded in daily routines that teach women to “read between the lines before [they can] read the lines themselves.”
The essay became a topic of contention on the internet when it was published on Medium in 2016. Much of the criticism was aimed at Coulter herself and why she, as a middle-class woman, felt compelled to write about her first-world problems. There was a strong undertone of sexism in this criticism: Women couldn’t really be alcoholics—not in the way men were. Addiction narratives have for so long been the domain of the male writer. From Fitzgerald’s On Booze to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the male alcoholic in literature is an exalted and romanticized figure. How dare a woman demystify the legend.
The dismissal of Coulter’s writing because it addressed “first-world problems” similarly misses the purpose of memoir. While the travails of a functioning alcoholic are not equivalent to those faced by a current resident of Syria or Yemen, Coulter is not a journalist; she is a memoirist. She addresses first-world problems because she lives in the first world. It is a dangerous path to follow when a writer has to defend the validity of her work based on the importance of the issues she discusses. If that is the route we are taking, then who gets to decide what is and what is not important?
Thomas De Quincey published the first-ever addiction narrative, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in 1823. The memoir covers the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and De Quincey’s work is no less important, vital or influential because it does not discuss the battle of Waterloo. In Nothing Good Can Come from This, Kristi Coulter has produced a series of essays that address addiction and recovery in sharp, perceptive memoir. It is a book worth discovering, no matter one’s gender or opinion on the seriousness of first-world problems.