by Koren Zailckas
Viking Adult, February 7, 2005
This is another one I didn't read, but listened to. And there was a big gap in my listening, as I didn't make it to the gym for the whole month of December, for various and sundry reasons.
During the time when I wasn't listening to it, though, I was still thinking about it. And when I put my iPod headphones back on during my flight to Oregon for Christmas, it took only a minute for me to be right back in Zailckas' story.
Whether you agree with Zailckas' conclusions or not (I haven't totally decided yet, myself), this is a great book. It is part memoir, with Zailckas chronicling her drinking life from her first drink as a young teenager to quitting in her early twenties; part treatise on the fucked up nature of America's relationship to alcohol, with a specific emphasis on the relationship between booze and young women. These two threads meld together very nicely, with the author making it clear that she's after more than a retelling of her story, which is, in most ways, pretty average. Zailckas says that she is not an alcoholic, but that she has a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. This dysfunctional relationship, however, is both shared by many of her peers and condoned by society, and the places in which she points this out are the most thought-provoking in her book.
The stories Zailckas tells about her drinking, particularly in college, are very like those I and my friends experience, and very like those experienced by college students across the country. Very little about them is exceptional, and on the whole they aren't even all that extreme. Zailkcas experiences alcohol poisoning, blackouts, and even possible date rape, but none of these stories are all that unique. One fear I have about this book is that people will misread it as a worse-case scenario cautionary tale. It's not. Koren Zailckas mostly did what was expected of her, mostly succeeded in the ways in which she was supposed to (being a cheerleader, joining a sorority, graduating from college, getting a job), and mostly got off easy. However, the normalcy of her experiences, and of the emotional retardation she attributes to them, doesn't make them any less of a problem. Hopefully readers of this book realize that.
Zailckas' conclusions about alcohol may lean on the side of teetolating a bit too much for some readers. She is not a believer in moderation, and does not seem to think most people are even willing or capable of drinking moderately. This may strike some readers as overly dramatic, but given the strong argument Zailckas makes between the "typical" use of alcohol among young people and a whole host of other issues, I can see how she gets there. While I never abused alcohol to the extent she did in college, many of the people I know did, and I can definitely see an argument for this abuse being a detriment not only to their lives at that time, but to the growing up they were supposed to be doing.
A final thing about this book I find striking is the short retrospect with which Zailckas writes. It is my understanding that she quit drinking at 22 or 23 and published Smashed at 24. Normally, memoirs having to do with things about which an individual is not proud, such as substance abuse, take longer to come to the surface, and I admire Zailckas' willingness to write about these issues without further distance from them. In some ways, it means more coming from someone who isn't far removed from it than it does coming from someone who is writing about his/her more distant past. It's more authentic, even if it does also have the prosletizing smack of the newly converted.