actually didn’t know this story
John Berryman sat in rehab looking like a “dishevelled Moses”, his shins black and blue, his liver palpitating, reciting Japanese and Greek poets and quoting Immanuel Kant. When he found out the doctors around him were serious he buckled under, declaring himself “a new man in 50 ways!” and affecting an ostentatious “religious conversion” which he proceeded to pour into a series of poems to his Higher Power (“Under new governance your majesty”). Ten days after leaving he found he needed a quick stiff one to get the creative juices flowing again and downed a quart of whisky. “Christ,” was all he could say the next morning.
Second time around he got himself a sponsor named Ken, and tried prose, writing a novel about his recovery, called “Recovery”, which goes some way to explaining why the recent spate of bestsellers on the subject have been non-fiction. Pretentious and opaque, including “a bloody philosophy of both history and Existens, almost as heavy as Tolstoy”, Berryman’s book remains an object lesson in how not to recover, as Donald Newlove has pointed out:
First you hang on to all your old romances about your illness, then you suck your old grandiosity for every drop that’s still in it, you vigorously emphasise your uniqueness among the clods who might be recovering with you, and then you defend to the death your right to self-destruction…Starting afresh meant that a massive part of his work so far was self-pity and breast-beating. That was the last mask he couldn’t rip off. It was like tearing the beard from his cheeks.
The book remained unfinished; within weeks of leaving Berryman threw himself from Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue bridge, his body splitting like a melon upon impact with the ground.
Trying to count. It’s terrifying in at least four ways, maybe lots more. I’m scared to look again.