BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
Author: Jessica Anya Blau
2011, Harper Perennial
Filed Under: Literary
Jessica Anya Blau’s Drinking Closer to Home is a sort of amped-up Anne Tyler novel, the story of a funny, chaotic family that fumbles its way to loving and supporting one another despite personal failings and the usual resentments that occur in families. Think of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant on steroids – or without any clothes on!
In Tyler’s 1982 novel, Pearl Tull, the 85-year old matriarch ruminates, “Something was wrong with all of her children. They were so frustrating – attractive, likable people, the three of them, but closed off from her in some perverse way that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. … She wondered if her children blamed her for something.” This could be Louise Stein’s reflection after she suffers her “massive” heart attack in Santa Barbara, California, in 1993, and her three children return home from their east coast locations to be with their mother and father, Buzzy, over the course of the next two weeks as Louise receives treatment. Only, Louise couldn’t care less what her children think of her, in the last analysis, as much as she loves them.
Drinking Closer to Home is arranged in alternating chapters, time present (1993), related in the present tense, and every other chapter related in the past tense, reviewing the history of the Stein family from 1968, with details from even further back. While told by an omniscient narrator, the focus is on the three children’s generation. Anna is the oldest, a person with a history of bulimia, anorexia, drug addiction, sex addiction, who is now married to a dull but devoted husband in Vermont. (“If Anna were to have a heart attack, her husband would be like Buzzy, Anna thinks, sitting by her side like a Seeing Eye dog.”) They have a three-year old boy named Blue and Anna has serial affairs, requiring stimulation she just can’t find at home. Portia is the middle child, with the middle child’s invisibility, or calm (mistaken for stupidity), nowhere near as excitable or as agitated as her older sister. She too has a small child, Esmé, but her husband has just left her for another woman, back home in Connecticut. She hadn’t seen it coming, believing her life was hunky dory, until she walked in on her husband in flagrante with a woman at work, the one he’s dumped her for. The third child, the baby, Emery, is gay, and his lover, Alejandro, has accompanied him to Santa Barbara. They live in New York. The children do indeed harbor resentments against their parents, blame them for their personal shortcomings, but Buzzy and Louise would just say, “Fuck ’em, that’s their problem, not ours.” Still, the fact that the children have dropped everything to come to their parents’ assistance tells you all you really need to know.
The “flashback” chapters focus on various developmental stages in the lives of the children: their move from Ann Arbor to Santa Barbara (“where the days are so sunny you’d swear a nuclear reactor had exploded”); visits from Buzzy’s Jewish parents and visits to Louise’s family in Vermont; Buzzy and Louise’s unorthodox lifestyle – they grow marijuana in the backyard, have a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward child-rearing, their house is overrun by animals, and Louise is something of a nudist. Chain-smoking Louise at one point throws in the towel on being a housewife and delegates the duties to her young daughters – washing, cooking, cleaning up, caring for Emery. These chapters, titled by the year in which they occur – 1968, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1981, 1984, etc. – focus on one child or another as he or she goes through a critical developmental stage – college, sex, marriage, rehab, coming out. A chapter on Anna relates her time as an undercover drug agent in Vermont law enforcement, the life-threatening danger and the extramarital affairs both.
Apart from Louise’s condition (will she live or die?), the drama in the story – what keeps this from being a merely episodic, sort of “coming of age” novel – is Emery’s and Alejandro’s plan to ask one of Emery’s sisters to donate an egg so that they can raise a child. The egg will be fertilized with Alejandro’s sperm. Over the course of many days (time present’s chapters are titled by the day after Louise’s heart attack – Day Two, Day Three, Day Ten, etc.), they finally work up the nerve, but only after we’ve learned the background of each child. In terms of the overall thrust of the novel, this signifies the perpetuity of the Stein DNA, a positive message of endurance amidst calamity, the continuation of the family through time.
Drinking Closer to Home is full of charming anecdotes about the family, part of the lore that binds the Steins together in a family narrative. Indeed, the title comes from just such a yarn. It refers to a time in the early forties when Louise was a baby and her parents, Otto and Billie, left her out in the car while they drank in a roadside inn in Vermont. Because they were so far from home, they decided to spend the night at the inn, forgetting about Louise in the car. When they discovered their mistake the next day, they were able to get her to a hospital and save her life, but the real lesson they drew from the experience was that next time, they’d find a place to drink that was closer to home. This becomes a running joke in the family. Another term from Vermont family lore is the “Stinky,” a husband’s lover on the side, and this plays an important role in the novel as we go through the family’s messy life over the years.
Through it all, the family is more or less intact at the end, despite the scars. Without giving away the ending, in the final chapter, when the family are all together in Santa Barbara Portia, who is still coming to terms with her failed marriage, makes a pithy observation that nevertheless sums the story up. “We are, Portia decides, the people we love.”
Jessica Blau writes with such warm humor that you are immediately sucked into the family and totally charmed by the oddball things they do. Her observations make you chuckle, as when Anna, looking critically at Portia at her wedding, thinks: “She looked sexless and earnest in the dress, like one of the multiple wives of an extremist Mormon hiding out in the mountains of Utah.” Bitchy, yeah, but can’t you feel the love?