Missed #3: Jill McCorkle and The Bourbon Hunt

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It’s a tricky thing, this Missed series. Writing is a lonely business, but publishing can be a disingenuous one, and the only essays and reviews that work are bullshit free. When I emailed Steve Elliott about this series, the number one rule we set was: No blow jobs to friends. Which has been surprisingly difficult. Because a lot of my friends are terrific writers, most are awfully underappreciated, and it’s almost physically impossible to keep this series from becoming horse trading.

For example, when I told one editor I love dearly about the project, her eyes lit right up.

“Why, I’ve got whole stacks of missed authors for you,” she said, pointing to her shelf.

But I can’t do that. It would be a favor, which means my essay would just be a two thousand-word “Like” button. And I’ve already hit that button twenty times this morning.

So while I’ve been scribbling about my next subject, Jill McCorkle, for weeks now, trying to figure out how to spell out her unappreciated greatness, I also have to explain why she is not my friend. She is really nice to me. We chat when we see each other, and she made a point of buying my last book, which was wonderful. But sadly, friendship eludes us.

We could have been friends, I think, if things had been different. When I read her stories—I want to be her best friend. I want to curl up next to her with some wine and talk about sex positions and gross birth details and how the potential, someday death of my child keeps me awake at night.

This is why, in 2009, I took Jill’s workshop at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. I was a Fellow, which is one of those lovely summer prizes they give to fledgling authors. It’s a real honor. You attend but don’t have to do anything, then they pickle you with booze and feed you cheese and mingle you with famous writers, and then let you do a big reading where everyone listens and says you’re great.

I showed up eleven weeks pregnant. This, for reasons that don’t make sense now (or then, actually), was a terrifically big secret. Yet, here’s a tip, fornicators: If you’re trying to hide a pregnancy, a summer writer’s conference is the place to be.

Everyone is drunk, always, and if they’re not, they’re so involved in meeting the right people they aren’t noticing much else. Even my oddest behavior was tolerated. I vomited constantly (she’s so drunk!), fell asleep in class (hung over?), and exhibited daily fits of rage (Hmmm. Must have slept with someone who’s ignoring her today). 

The above were all, as I’ve said, forgivable sins. Then I went further. During my Big Reading, when I got up in front of 200 people—some of them my life-long idols—and cried all through my story. This was not gentle, ladylike weeping, but the burping out of wracking, spittle-ridden sobs. You can ask anyone. Richard Bausch, Idol #1. Alice McDermott, Idol #2. I’m pretty sure Richard Wilbur had left for another Famous Person Summit, thank God, but the others can tell you. It was horrific.

“Like watching a train wreck!” one of my friends said cheerfully, handing me a stiff drink, which—after a healthy swallow—I poured into a plant.

And everyone was really nice about it, including Jill McCorkle, but the rest of the week she and the other heavies politely sidled away from me in that oh-God-here-comes-that-crazy-girl sort of way. When you’re the weirdo, the more you try, the worse it gets. This just wasn’t a fixable thing. I know, because I was the only sober one there.

goingawayshoesSo that was Sewanee. But it actually worked out, sort of, because during those long nights, as I writhed on the plastic mattress reeking of bleach (we all know what the Sewanee freshmen are doing on those XL-twin beds), listening to my compatriots do tequila shots and yowl, I read all of Jill McCorkle’s stories. I had only read one collection before the conference, Creatures of Habit. Now I went through Crash Diet and Going Away Shoes. They were terrific; humorous and biting like Lorrie Moore’s work; only these were better for me, because sometimes I finish a Lorrie Moore story and feel one of two things:  a bit beaten up or sort of…huh? But that doesn’t happen with Jill McCorkle. To steal a line from my partner (and cause of the above-mentioned knock-up): After reading a Jill McCorkle story, I feel like a better person.

But still, that’s not what’s missed about Jill McCorkle, in my opinion. Actually, if you really think about it, she’s not really, in a classic way “missed”. When the New York Times runs a two-page feature on you, you’re not really missed. When you have ten books and thousands of devoted readers, you’re not really missed. Yet still, as far as I can tell, there is something missed about her. To very few of us, she speaks in a secret language. To explain I’ve got to tell you about the Bourbon Hunt.

I’m not going to go too far into this, because how much more naked can one get in a lit crit piece? (And, oh, is that what this is?) But! I am the daughter of an incurable, if lovable, alcoholic. It’s a bad thing, and my family lives with it, the same way 98% of other families in this country live with sons and fathers and sisters and daughters who abuse substances. I don’t like to talk about it much. Not because I don’t need more healing—cut to: snot-charged, teary hiccups in front of large literary crowd—but talking about a beloved alcoholic is just such a boring bummer. I mean, I’d just rather talk about Homeland or the Obamacare website or hemorrhoids. You know?

And also, since I’m a writer, people always offer me books when they hear of my problems. You know, to facilitate the aforementioned healing. In their well-meaning way, they ask, “Have you read Bastard out of Carolina?”. “’Tis?” “The Liar’s Club?” “The Glass Castle?”

I have. Or I haven’t. I start those books, those intricately plotted, gorgeously written tomes, and they always make me relive the crappy parts of loving a drunk person. I just don’t think survivors like reading about other people who went through what they did. We say, I did that already. We say, Give me a new story.

So when I got to Jill McCorkle’s Intervention, a story about a drunk father and husband, I approached with caution. But this is where my lost friend Jill McCorkle blew me out of the water. She didn’t do the expected, which was to gorgeously portray the unease of living with a substance abuser. She did not create a stark world where the floor and walls are forever sliding away. She didn’t, because we lovers of addicts know about all of that. Instead, she made the drunk the victim, which was a refreshing read indeed.

In the beginning of Intervention, Marilyn, the wife, is waiting for her grown kids to arrive and take her husband, Sid, to treatment. “Sid is sixty-five. He is retired. He is disappearing in front of her eyes.” Sid calls himself a Jewokee, as his mother was a Cherokee and his father a Jew. We learn early that the man is immensely lovable and funny and that the kids have become self-centered twerps. As an everyday couple, Sid and Marilyn are among the happiest in literature, sitting wordless after the sun goes down, as “those pauses, the punctuation marks of marriage, could tell their whole history spoken and unspoken.”

Yet there is some serious enabling going on. Marilyn is hiding Sid’s empty bottles. “Sometimes the car is parked crooked in the drive, a way he never would have parked even two years ago, and she goes out in her housecoat and bedroom slippers to straighten it up so the neighbors won’t think anything is wrong.” Now, this is all familiar territory to a family member of a drunk. What’s not is Sid’s angelic demeanor. He seems to have fallen into alcoholism and gotten stuck there. “‘What the shit is wrong with my tongue, Tom?’” Sid asks his son, who has called after the whiskey hour. “‘Did I have a goddam stroke? Slllllmmmm—sla, sla.’” There is no doubt that everyone loves Sid, and that Sid loves them back. He just drinks too much.

Just as McCorkle nails the intricacies of the disease, she also portrays the righteousness that occurs when one family member is sick and the others aren’t. The daughter Sally says, “‘The fact that you brought all this up is a cry for help whether you admit it or not.’ She continues, “‘And we are here, Mother. We are here for you.’” Never mind that Marilyn and Sid ridicule Sally’s ass of a husband and pine for Tom’s ditched first wife. Their children have become awful adults, and to take their minds off of their own hypocrisy, the storm in armed with pamphlets to set their father right.

In the midst of all this, we learn exactly why Sid started drinking. I don’t want to play out the whole story, but let’s just say that while he has a problem, he’s not the problem. In a good natured way, Sid reassures his children that he’ll stop drinking. They go away, finally, and the couple is alone again in their happy dysfunction:

‘I have to say, I’m glad to see them leave.’ He turns now and waits for her to say something.

‘I say adios motherfuckers.’ She cocks her hands this way and that like rappers do which makes him laugh. She notices his hand shaking and reaches to hold it in her own. She waits, and then she offers to fix him a small drink to calm his nerves.

I remember reading that story and putting it down and sitting up in my bed. It was three in the morning. Below me, people were running outside to skinny dip.

Well this is just outrageous, I thought. How could a writer make something so tragic so funny?

And that’s when I realized the bit you might miss. I can’t say this for sure, but I believe Jill McCorkle was speaking in code here to those who love addicts. It’s unseemly to admit, but there really are a lot of humorous parts about having an addict in the family. It seems to me that Jill McCorkle knows that, and writes about it, and I’ve never seen that before, anywhere, ever.

Let me just give you one real-life example. The Bourbon Hunt, we called it. When I was little, my dad used to hide bottles around the back yard “just in case”. This was in South Carolina, so I guess he was afraid of getting caught dry if Jesus actually showed up or something. My brother and I, we had this game where we would find his hidden bottles of Jim Beam (always Jim) and stick them somewhere else. Then we’d sit in the window and watch my father look for his booze.

Dad would paw the tire swing, then the tree house. He’d grow more and more frantic, digging holes, looking under roots. Finally he’d charge off to look in the house, and we’d put the bourbon back in its hiding place again. And then a few minutes later, he’d come find it—drunks always look twice for their liquor—and scratch his head. But he couldn’t be mad, because it was all going to be okay! Jim was there for him! Now it was time to ask him to take us to the drug store for candy and Whoopee cushions. Which we would do, because we were little shits.

And when we got back, my brother and I, we’d roll on the floor, laughing. It was 1981, and we were seven and nine years old and in it together. We were warriors against the unexplained bad thing, and we reveled in the hilarity.

Writing this now, I can see how this probably doesn’t sound very funny if you don’t know much about addiction. Well that’s just sad, you might say.

This is what I mean. Although Intervention is for everyone, I think Jill McCorkle, in some ways, is speaking to a specific audience—to me and maybe not to you. She knows that addiction is sad but that the only way to get through the sad is the funny. Marilyn chooses to ignore her husband’s progressing illness because she’d rather be messed up and keep her sense of humor. Families do these things for each other to get by. That’s what it is to fall in love with a person—mate, kid, dog. We make it up about each other, because if we don’t, we sink.

Did I read too much into it? Probably. That’s the great thing about fiction, isn’t it? You can read it however you want. But let me tell you, lying there in Tennessee in the blue hours, that story grew steadily more important to me. Because at the time I was really wondering if a woman as screwed up as myself—a woman hiding her pregnancy, a woman who couldn’t muddle through a reading without sobbing, could make things decent for her child. Especially knowing all of the not-funny things beyond the Bourbon Hunt that I’m not talking about right now.

Intervention told me I could do it. It would be okay. Things would be screwed up, for sure they would. But I could ride the funny and tune out the other stuff. Like Marilyn, I had been doing it for years.

So that’s why I love Intervention. I’m not saying you’ll have the same experience; I was pretty primed for my own intervention at the time, pardon the pun. But if you aren’t, in fact, aware of Jill McCorkle yet, go get yourself some stories or a novel. They’ll make you better. If that’s something not to miss, I don’t know what is.


Katie Crouch is a novelist. Her next book, ABROAD, comes out in June. More from this author →