Overlapping themes of personal freedom, newfound self-determination, and individual autonomy are at the heart of Carol Weis’s memoir Stumbling Home: Life Before and After That Last Drink, as well as Laury A. Egan’s new novel The Swimmer (both from Heliotrope Books). Uncanny timing is at work, as these two fine works emerge in the first spring to follow the awful past year of Covid-19. These books are about overcoming trauma.
It’s understatement to say that author Carol Weis knew trauma in early childhood. When she was three, her mother spent a year and a half being hospitalized for tuberculosis. During those eighteen months, plagued by fears of abandonment and the panic of insecurity, Weis was sent from one relative’s home to another. Always unsure of how long she’d stay, never feeling truly at home.
As her teen years unfolded, the omnipresence of alcohol in Weis’s life put her on a path that is tragically common. Like so many others of all races, creeds, demographics, the family atmosphere in which Weis grew up forbade talking openly about feelings or fears. Instead, there was drinking.
Alcohol was the balm. It soothed frayed nerves. Booze also gave the author and all those around her short-term bursts of confidence and the illusion of “fun.” Most of all, heavy drinking served as a salve to ameliorate emotional dread and inner personal wounds.
Stumbling Home: Life Before and After That Last Drink chronicles the chaos and disarray of Weis’s young adulthood as she attempted to mature into her twenties, while remaining stuck with the patterns of alcohol abuse that defined her adolescence. Society at large and what passes for culture in America were no help at all, in that everywhere and always the mass media reinforced the lies about alcohol as a one-way ticket to “party hearty,” social “acceptance,” and the “good times” meant for all.
Contrasted with those recollections of dangerous excess, lousy men, bad sex, and a hazy medley of multiple incidents involving embarrassment and deep shame, and balancing the book by creating its structure of alternating chapters, there is the parallel narrative of recovery and redemption.
Pregnancy was the tipping point. Against all odds, committing herself to single parenthood forced Weis to face the fact that she had to stop drinking. She did. And her anecdotes, episodes, and chapters about the struggles of getting sober, as she learned to parent her daughter, are as riveting and substantial as her pages about drinking. This memoir is finely-tuned, as hopelessness and self-loathing gradually give way to clear-eyed self-actualization and rising from the ashes.
The author’s astute, sharp, tough-minded writing is immediately apparent in her Prologue. Weis begins this “Memoir Noir” with a blunt-yet-poetic narrative flourish: “What happens to a child who’s abandoned intentionally or not when she grows up? A girl whose early years are rife with anger and fear … who confuses trouble with fun and who’s terrified of being left again? She ends up drinking and drugging way more than she should … seeking to obliterate her past … sleeping with every Tom, Rich, and Henry with her claws ever extended … eventually marrying a guy she snags who consumes as much as she does … fathers her child and fulfilling her fears leaves her when she gets sober … unable to do so himself. This woman-child stumbles and falls over and over again until finally she picks herself up and stumbles home.”
Stumbling Home: Life Before and After That Last Drink is a book that can change lives. In her story of self-destruction followed by self-reinvention, Carol Weis illustrates that rebirth is always an option.
What better rebirth, then, to move to than that of the Ernest Hemingway code “Dignity in the face of death”? Recently, a new Ken Burns PBS series highlighted the life and legacy of the iconic author. Controversies abound about varied aspects of Hemingway’s work and his persona. However, the general consensus regarding his approach to mortality is a sentiment very much at the heart of Laury A. Egan’s new novel The Swimmer.
Several major themes congeal in this unique story of facing one’s death with a renewed commitment to live as fully as possible in the time that remains. The Swimmer is a compelling narrative that combines raw, end-of-life realities with a touch of magical realism. Aspects of bravery, grief, and sacrifice also inform this story.
The protagonist is Bess Lynch, a psychotherapist who journeys to Cape Cod to try to come to terms with her diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer. Her demise is imminent. Swimming is her primary mode of relaxation and one day, while swimming, she meets Stephen, steeped in grief by the recent death of his husband.
Yet Stephen has the energy and empathy required to form a new strong bond with Bess. In their newfound reckoning as regards the shortness of time, Bess and Stephen cultivate their own intimate, exceedingly tender affair. All of which is detonated by the explosive arrival of Bess’s son, Nathan, who is aghast at his married mother’s choices.
Extreme tensions amid the unfolding drama in this novel are handled with intelligent, graceful writing that never shies away from the toxic elements often found at the core of a family. Bess has every intention of making major final decisions about her own marriage, her will, and her life and death; as the end of her remaining time comes into focus.
The Swimmer is a novel that deals boldly with ultimate themes (the inevitability of death and the impermanence of life), yet manages not to be morbid or dirge-like. The healing of psyche and soul is a counterpart to the dissolving of one’s body in this narrative. And much of the healing has everything to do with forgiveness. That is, with coming to terms with one’s all-too-human flaws and past failures.
Narrated by Bess in the first-person, the story unfolds briskly, setting the tone: “I was just outside of Provincetown, the farthest I could journey out to sea without leaving land. And a place my husband wouldn’t think to look for me. I’d driven here alone, to make some critical decisions about my life and its ending. When would I die and how? Would it happen soon? In weeks or months? Or would I be granted another year?”
The Swimmer powerfully reminds us that crises and compassion often merge in great fiction. As she stares death in the face, Bess loves anew with Stephen, and reconciles with her troubled son.
Laury A. Egan has made a strong contribution to the literature of love and death.