November 4, 2013

Recovery & Mortality: A Review of BACK FROM THE ABYSS

(Note: a complimentary copy of Back From the Abyss was provided for review purposes by Cap and Bells Press. My opinions are my own.)

Admittedly, Back from the Abyss by Kieran Doherty might seem to be written for a very narrow audience. From the subtitle Autobiography of a Low-Bottom Alky, people not familiar with 12 Step philosophy might feel that this is nothing more than a recruiting piece for AA. And my own background in chemical dependency might make me sensitive towards liking - or disliking - certain creative works. (I quit watching Breaking Bad after episode three - it's not a bad show; I am just too familiar with meth culture to appreciate it).

But Back From the Abyss is more than just another "drunk-o-log", as my anonymous friends in AA might say - it's a very well-written memoir, focusing as much on the tender treasures of life as it does on the destructive aftermath of alcoholism. Bookended by pieces written by editor Mark Morgan Ford, Back from the Abyss focuses on Doherty's experiences, his drinking, and his eventual recovery.

What's remarkable about the book is that it avoids the obvious cliche of "once I began recovery, everything got better" - the prose is very straightforward, almost pulp in its style and approach. Rather than chapters, Back from the Abyss consists of chronologically-arranged remembrances, each one focusing on a particular aspect of Doherty's life (especially when it comes to drinking). Each segment is both touchingly realistic and brutally honest, with Doherty taking responsibility with every single word. Despite our current culture's fascination with self-destruction (especially when it comes to celebrities), Back from the Abyss' stripped down, brutally honest approach never seems overindulgent nor does it glamorize the drinking life. (Even in mid-remembrance, Doherty manages to turn his view back on himself, and this book reads less like a Fourth Step Inventory and more like a speaker at an open meeting).

When Doherty begins discussing the lung cancer that eventually took his life, the book masterfully focuses less on the need to "make amends" than on his appreciation of taking "one day at a time." At this point, Back From the Abyss achieves a delicate balance in looking back and appreciating the present. There is no cheap sentimentality or brutal self-revelation. Once Doherty's prose ends, there is a sense of acceptance and willingness which is genuinely moving.

Back from the Abyss isn't a huge, action-packed blockbuster....but neither is it it a faux-literary piece. As a memoir, it is simultaneously harrowing and touching, yet never seems overwritten. It may not be on the best-seller list, but Kieran Doherty's Back from the Abyss is a book worth seeking out, reading, and enjoying - it's a great read, and worth your time.

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