June 22, 2011
A touching, funny, and unflinching look at a dysfunctional family, Drinking Closer to Home (Harper Perennial) by Jessica Anya Blau is a history that many of us may have lived. Hippie parents, competition between siblings, and the growing pains that we all endured: these are the fond memories and nightmares of our youth. What do you do when your mother quits being a mother? When your father grows pot plants in the back yard? When your older sister turns into a cigarette smoking, hard drinking woman on the prowl? When your younger sister retreats into her shell, a beach bunny with hidden dreams? When you suspect your brilliant brother of being gay, a ghost lost in the shadow of his dominant sisters? These stories are told in a series of flashbacks from 1968 to the present while the family is gathered around the hospital bed of their mother as she recuperates from a heart attack. Their sordid tales of youth and adventure unfold at a rapid clip, as the present-day regrets and promises to change float about the sterile hospital room and the messy homestead as well. Louise the freewheeling mother; Buzzy the worrisome father; Anna the wild older sister; Portia the heartbroken younger sister; and Emery the shy brother, run us through the wringer, and in the process, endear themselves to us—holding up mirrors, and windows, and open hands, looking for forgiveness.
After the children unite around the hospital bed of their sick mother, we go back to the beginning, to their early childhood, to see how we got here. How did Anna become an unfaithful wife? How did Portia become a doormat? How did Emery become the voice of reason? It started when Louise decided to quit:
“The year Anna was eleven, Portia was eight, and Emery was three, Louise decided she quit being a housewife. Anna was playing Parcheesi with her sister on the family room floor when Louise told them.
‘Portia, Anna,’ Louise said, and she began searching through the little piles of papers, mail, phone books, and pencils that covered from end to end the white tile counter that separated the kitchen from the family room.
‘Yeah?’ Portia asked. Anna looked at her freckle-faced sister, her white, hairless flesh, her wispy brown hair that shone like corn silk. As much as she often hated her, she could understand why her parents were always pawing at her with hugs and kisses: the girl was like a pastry or a sweet. She looked edible.
Anna was as small as Portia. But she was all muscle and sinew, as if she were made of telephone cables. No one ever wanted to pinch telephone cables. She rolled the dice and ignored her mother.
‘Come here,’ Louise said. She continued to shift things around. Portia pushed her doughy rump up and went to the counter. She moved aside an empty box that had held ten Hot Wheels racing cars and handed her mother the pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes she was most likely looking for.
Can you imagine what that kind of statement would do to a household of children? The responsibility, the pressure: the freedom. A wave of emotions would wash over you at such irresponsible behavior by an adult. Or is it empowering? Does it build character? The response:
“‘What do you mean you quit?’ Portia climbed onto the orange stool. Anna wondered when her sister would stop asking questions.
‘Your turn,’ Anna said. She looked toward her sister’s back and watched as her mother pursed her lips and let out a slow stream of smoke.
‘I quit being a housewife.’ Louise shook her hair and smiled.
‘Can you do that?’ Portia asked.
Anna was going to pretend she wasn’t listening. There was something inside her that often led her to believe that if she ignored certain things they would cease to exist. She turned the Parcheesi board over and dumped the pieces on the rug.
‘Of course I can. I just did. I quit!’ Louise took another drag off her cigarette.”
And so it begins: Louise out in her studio writing poetry and sketching surreal artwork, Buzzy harvesting his pot crops, while Emery tried to burn them down, leaving Anna and Portia in charge of the chaos that is their ever changing house and home.
As we jump back and forth between the chaos of their youth and the chaos of their adult lives we get the story from all sides. We see the tough love of their grandfather Otto, always asking Portia, “You still in Dummy School?” He jokes to the other family members asking “…did you see the tits on these girls?” While in the present Portia’s life unravels, her own husband leaving her, having an affair, even as she is pregnant. We see a young Anna join the police force, go undercover, and have an affair with her partner, the excitement of the dangerous work a sure aphrodisiac. In the present-day, her affairs are common knowledge to the family, and they joke about her inability to stay faithful. Her own child Blue seems more like an overstuffed handbag, something she lugs around out of necessity, but not something that she enjoys carrying. We see Emery lost in the mix of everything, ignored by grandparents and parents alike, often disappearing as he gets older, unnoticed by his family members as he embraces his newfound gay lifestyle. In the present-day, he is the one that finds true love, in Alejandro, and seeks to have a child—if his sisters will only donate an egg.
But this novel is not simply a list of mistakes and problems, addictions and betrayals. It is hilarious as well. As the family members make fun of themselves, often picking at each other in the process, there is laughter and humor throughout. And Jessica Anya Blau isn’t afraid to work blue, either. When Anna and Portia try on clothes, taking a break from the depressing hospital room and the stress of sitting by their mother’s side all day long, Anna swears there is a cum stain on her skirt. As she recounts a memory of her sexual adventures as a young girl, Anna doesn’t realize that Portia is no longer in the dressing room next to her—it’s Randy Freeman’s mother:
“‘I think there’s a cum spot on this skirt,” Anna says. Portia doesn’t respond.
‘God,’ Anna says, looking at her face in the mirror, turning from angle to angle. ‘Did I ever tell you about that time that I gave Randy Freeman a hand job in the janitor’s closet at school and he came all over my black pants and I couldn’t get it out? I swear, it was like there was an iron-on cloud on my pants.’
The stall door opens and a stiff-haired woman in a pantsuit steps out. Her face is white. Her hands are shaking as she washes them. Anna looks over at the stall Portia had been in and seesthat the clothes are no longer flung over the divider. She wantsto laugh and she wants to leave the bathroom but she is somehowstuck in place with the glue of embarrassment.
‘How do you know Randy Freeman?’ the woman asks.”
As I got to know these people (and they really did become human beings to me) I became invested. I wanted Louise to get better, even with all of her screw-ups. I wanted Portia to find love, the naïve girl with the huge heart. I wanted Anna to find a way to stop being so angry, to find peace, and to stop running around. Shocked by some of Buzzy’s admissions, I was still willing to give him another chance. I vowed that I wouldn’t cry reading this book, but Jessica Anya Blau finally got me towards the end when Emery and Anna have a touching moment, the distances a lifetime has created melting away in one gesture, relief washing over me, their embrace a welcome conclusion.
There are no vampires in this novel, no portals to other worlds, or crimes to be solved, nothing to prop up the narrative except truth, and emotion, and love. In all of the many ways that we as human beings use and then need each other, this is Jessica Anya Blau’s story. What is it they say about family? You can’t choose them? No, you can’t. But the lengths that we go to in order to protect our inner circle, the threads of our lives, every frayed bit of string, every bright patch and faded piece of fabric, it is ours, it is our experience, and it is our evolution. Drinking Closer to Home is a powerful book, and an emotionally draining experience—much like family. Would you have it any other way?