June 14, 2020: “Teetotaler” by Amanda Gowin

A good Sunday to you, Story366!

Today is the president’s birthday, so naturally, I need to post this:

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I keep saying this on the blog, but new lows have been sunk to by the trumpness: eliminating rights for LGBTQ people on the anniversary of the Pulse massacre? Check, asshole. Trying to hold your white party convention in Tulsa during Juneteenth amidst all the race protests and riots? Check again, asshole. Stumbling off a podium and unable to drink water? Well, that’s just weird. Even if I don’t mention this every day, I’m thinking it every day: Our current prez is a dickslap. The hopeful (and naive, I guess) part of my brain tells me that he’s going to one day do something that will make his contingency dislike him, actually see that he’s a monster, and stop supporting him. The logical side of my brains tells me that the worse he gets, the more they’ll like him. Fuck, that’s a conundrum. Or is it a catch-22? Either way, it sucks.

Black lives matter.

For today’s post, I read from Amanda Gowin‘s 2014 collection, Radium Girls, out from Thunderdome Press. This was my first foray into Gowin’s work, so let’s run it down.

The first story, “Hollow Creatures,” (co-conceived with H.R. Tardiff) is actually a play, a play about two women, Amanda and Hilary, who sit on a nondescript stage, puffing on a hookah, and discussing haircuts, how one of them had her husband shave her head, and the empowerment she lost to him, letting him do so. I’ve seen script-type pieces presented as stories before—one by Robert Coover, for example—and I like that piece. Gowin’s piece certainly has a message, and that’s good, and reading her acknowledgments, it seems as if she’d like to compose more of it in the future (which was six years ago).

The next story, “The Cabbage Muse,” is about Jonah, a young man who seems to like masturbation. Been there, man. Anyway, a message disguised as a cabbage ad seems to be a secret code for him to go out and meet his sometime (and possibly imaginary) lover, Cecilia, who is sometimes incarcerated but escapes just to see him. Jonah spend a lot time asking if all the weird stuff Cecilia wants to do means that she wants to finally fuck, meaning this is probably a dream or an allegory for a horny kid who really wants to cash in his V card.

The story I’m focusing on tonight is more of a straightforward story, as in it’s seemingly based in reality and is, like, a story. This is “Teetotaler” and is about Nathan, a guy 441 days sober and attending an AA meeting. There he realizes that a woman he’s interested in, Kathy, is probably drunk, or at least has been recently, that she’s keeping quiet so nobody catches on. Meanwhile, his sponsor, Gerald, is telling everyone about his latest relapse and how his wife finally stuck to her word and left him. It’s a sad but accurate depiciton of a meeting—I used to take a family member to these—right down to the folding chairs and Styrofoam cups for coffee.

Nathan, during the meeting and after, considers his own sobriety, and it’s within these interior monologues that we start to see the details of his journey on the wagon. He has different benchmarks, marked by the count of days since his last drink, which is a way of measuring success as well as passing time. He does make vague references to the evidence of past offenses, boxed up under his bed, which includes a lot of Polaroids. This seems weird, but Gowin keeps it subtle enough, random enough, to make us think that he’s talking about things he’s lost, keepsakes from a life before his sobriety; or, conversely, maybe these things under the bed are relics from a lost era, memories of things and especially people he’s lost because of his drinking.

Meanwhile, after the meeting that opened the story, he and Kathy—whom he’s been exchanging knowing glances with—meet up. She admits she’s down to zero days sober and possibly still drunk. Nathan boasts of his 441 days, which impresses Kathy—note, sober and together people are not supposed to hit on the lapses when they’re vulnerable—and eventually, they head back to his place and begin to have sex, Kathy up against the wall as Nathan forcefully kisses her, Nathan … okay, you get how people have sex.

That’s when the story’s just about over, but soon reveals a drastic twist, one that puts new light to Nathan’s 441 days, to why he’s needed to be in AA, and to what those keepsakes are under his bed, of what they’re there to remind him.

Amanda Gowin is not afraid to push the definition of story in her debut collection, Radium Girls, and I appreciate that in a book. These three stories, plus a few others I read (mainly shorts), all seem to have their own voice, their own mission, their own universe, and it’s rare I see a writer exert such eclecticism. This is a fun collection, a writer flexing her creative muscles. I’m glad this book exists.

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