When Crazy Heart came out in 2009, I took my teenage daughter to see it. I thought it would be a nice bonding experience: a Sunday matinee and dinner afterward. Plus this was Jeff Bridges, of Big Lebowski fame; he’s that rare actor that 15-year-old girls and 43-year-old moms can agree upon.
I was stricken by Bridges’ portrayal of the alcoholic country musician—his erratic life and chance at love and the colossal drunken mistake he made to end it all. I swooned as he was redeemed at the end, because it was too late. So bittersweet! The man straightened up, quit drinking and took responsibility for the damage he’d done only after he’d lost everything he cared about. I was heartbroken on his behalf.
But as we walked out of the theater, I noticed my daughter, Leni, looked exasperated.
“Did you like the movie?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It was kind of boring. How many times can you see that story? I mean, I LIVED that story. So it’s not like I get all sad and weepy when I see it happening to some made-up character.”
This is where my daughter and I part ways. We both lived that story: loving an unrelenting alcoholic—my first husband, her father—even while he systematically destroyed everything in our lives. Finances, relationships, trust. It was all gone by the time he took off in 2001. Leni was seven that year. She loved her daddy fiercely, far more (and I say this without umbrage) than she did me. But she also knew what it was to see him raging and stumbling; she knew what it was like to get home from school and find he’d disappeared.
Leni was terrified. She wanted to sleep with me at night. And in one of the only purely unselfish moments of my adult life, I refused. I would sit by her bed until she fell asleep but I would not let her crawl into mine. Because I knew that if I did it would be I, the mother, who was leaching comfort from a tiny girl.
But even as devastated as I was, as my kids were, I set off the next year on a writing career featuring one spectacularly charismatic, flawed character: my own drunken cowboy hero. I valorized everything my ex-husband had done, right down to leaving his children. In “The Drunkard’s Gait“—an essay in The Sun that is probably the best thing I’ve written to date—I chronicled our life together and the bond that we maintained even after my ex-husband fled, debt-ridden and desperate. At night, during the winter of 2002, we would talk secretly on the phone:
“I miss you,” I whispered to my husband from the small island of my bed. In the distance, behind his silence, I could hear the watery rush of cars driving by. “Stay safe. Call again so I know you’re OK.” Then, quickly, I hung up.
Now he exists nowhere in particular, freezing in a tent at night, eating among strangers, working until his hands bleed. And drinking, as always, to kill the pain. He is a weak man, but also, it seems to me, a brave one.
By the time this essay actually appeared, I was living with my parents because my ex-husband had vanished completely and quit sending even small bits of child support or notes for the kids. He would not resurface until 2005 and he would never again contribute to their upbringing in any way.
Yet, I continued with my pursuit of the tragic drunken hero and wrote an entire novel based upon our early life together—a book in which the wife (me) comes off as a bit of a shrew but the husband (him, only taller) is a great man beset by unfair circumstance and insurmountable demons.
As I was writing, even while he sat across town in a squalid apartment and cursed his failed life, I fell in love all over again with the facsimile of him that I created. Sometimes, when he showed up in the flesh, I was startled. Where was the winsome, gracious addict who bore up under an extraordinary and special burden? Who was this dirty, resentful person siting in my kitchen, drinking Mountain Dew and loudly attributing all his woes to the newly-elected president, George W. Bush? Sobriety did not breed gratitude in my ex, far from it. Secretly, I far preferred him drunk.
For years, I’ve held onto my sacred ideal of the drunken cowboy. It goes back to my own teenage years, when I read and re-read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I wept for poor, weak Johnny Nolan even while I hated his domineering wife, Katie. I understood why the narrator, Francie, loved her father above all others. He was better, more sensitive, more human somehow than Francie’s grim-faced working mother. I often think the die was cast when I closed this novel for the first time around age 13. I would find a sweet, lovely Johnny of my own and I would love him right.
I was 15 when Arthur came out and I saw it at least twice. Not only was this Dudley Moore character funny, he was utterly manageable. Between his valet (every drunk should have one) and a wild-haired, working-class girlfriend played by Liza Minnelli, Arthur got by just fine in a bubbly, perpetual haze.
As I got older, I fell for the hard-drinking men in novels by Steinbeck and Hemingway. These were loners, rugged frontiersmen, ex-pats living in exotic foreign countries, guys who were impoverished but proud. When I met my first husband and he drank 12 beers in one sitting, I thought he was a real man. That he used pot to help him sleep seemed worldly and rational to me. That he knew how to cut cocaine on a friend’s glass-topped table and snort it smoothly through a rolled-up twenty … well, that scared me. But mostly in a good way.
Long before there was a movie, the novelist Thomas Cobb published Crazy Heart back in 1989. I didn’t read it then—at 22—though if I had I’m sure I’d have loved it. I was nearly two years into a marriage with the protagonist Bad Blake’s spiritual alcoholic twin. And the critics (writers, with likely a few drinkers among them) were universally adulatory.
“Thomas Cobb has written a bitter, witty psychological profile of an aging genius,” wrote Donald Barthelme.
“Cobb has created an unforgettable character who engages not only your interest but your emotion,” said the reviewer from the Chicago Tribune.
“Bad is entirely sympathetic, and this crazy heart is vivid,” raved the New York Times.
Cobb is an extraordinary writer and the reviews for his book were well-deserved. But some part of this story’s appeal comes from our collective love affair with the hapless, genius addict. He is an icon in American literature and film. And if, like me, you live like you read, he can become an icon in life as well.
But I am reminded as I deal with another addict—this one my son, the middle child of that man who was my hero so many years ago—that reality is nothing like the movies. Here on earth, addiction is messy and disruptive and terrifying and life-threatening and the story won’t neatly peak then come to closure. There is no beginning to the story of an actual drunkard. There is no middle. And I finally understand that all too often, there is no satisfying end.