Don’t judge a book by its cover. This is generally sound advice, both literally — there are some godawful book covers out there — and figuratively, as it’s intended. Then along comes a book like Kim Addonizio’s Bukowski In a Sundress, upending received wisdom.
Why is this? Well, let’s have a closer look at that cover. Unpack it, as our lit profs would say. Addonizio herself graces it, perching atop a dishwasher, clad in an abbreviated miniskirt. An open book rests on one black-stocking’d thigh. Instead of gazing soulfully into the camera, Addonizio polishes off a glass of wine. Behind her, more liquor stands at the ready.
Here is a book to judge by its cover.
Feel a shiver of happy anticipation, followed by relief: Bukowski In a Sundress isn’t a shimmery summer beach read. There will be no bathing suits, no bronzed boys helming boats, no, thank God, gazpacho recipes. This memoir-in-essays is an unflinching look at middle age, men, ailing parents, alcohol, and the enduring commitment to serious writing.
Addonizio is often compared to Anne Lamott, a disservice to both writers. Yes, they share an inclination to write about writing and a Northern California address. Lamott’s most recent publications, while humorous and often political, focus on her Christian faith. This is not a topic naturally lending itself to the extremes Addonizio willingly pursues, both in life and work. As Lamott goes on cruises with her friend Tom and son Sam, fretting over her thighs (see “Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith”), Addonizio makes pornographic videos with a boyfriend. Later there’s an inebriated one-night stand at a writer’s conference (“All Manner of Obscene Things”,”Plan D”). Lamott’s long-term sobriety is critical to both her survival and writing identity. Alcohol plays a large part in Addonizio’s life, and it ain’t the villian.
Bukowski In a Sundress begins with the aforementioned one-night stand. The essay, titled “Plan D”, take place during the final night of a writer’s conference. Addonizio, decked out in a Betty-Boop t-shirt, tight jeans, and high-heeled combat boots, wants to score free pot and booze. These are plans A through C. Should they fail, she will resort to Plan D, which is to “hit up a stranger at a bar.”
Addonizio does just that, meeting Ken, installer of refrigeration units. They drunkenly head for Addonizio’s hotel room for an evening of debauchery.
Come daybreak, Addonizio recalls little of what went before. Hideously hungover, she drags herself to the airport shuttle, where fellow conference attendees are discussing tenure, fellowships, and publications. She hopes to avoid vomiting on them.
One-night stands aside, the men are largely duds. “Necrophilia” discusses physically attractive men with the emotional intelligence of throw rugs (not Addonizio’s adjective).”Are You Insane?” tells of two drunken students whose unwitting voicemail is all callow stupidity. “Penis by Penis” is a brief visit to the hell known as online dating:
I finally cast my net into the waters of online dating. But it turned out I was casting it in some distant part of the ocean, where few men of my age were to be found. They were all nibbling at the profiles of younger women.
Nevertheless, Addonizio makes a game effort. When she telephones a man who professed interest, he treats her like a telemarketer. Another man seems reasonable online; in person he sniffs her armpit and chats about alien abduction.
The sole reasonable guy in Bukowski In a Sundress is 26 years younger than Addonizio. Hence, his appearance in “How to Fall for a Younger Man”. Unfortunately, they fall in love. The fact that the guy is decent makes the inevitable breakup all the more devastating.
One day, he will be your friend. It will be a tentative friendship on both sides, each of you aware of the harm you have done each other, each of you still caring, wanting to get it right between you, whatever it is.
“Simple Christian Charity”, “Flu Shot”, and “Space” cover family, that most painful of topics. Addonizio grew up with a mentally ill brother whose outbursts terrorized her family. Now he is in failing physical health and has few resources. Yet he remains abusive. Addonizio can only pity him from afar.
Some of the most painful writing in the book concerns Addonizio’s mother, former tennis champion Pauline Betz Addie.This once vibrant athlete, now ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, has lost her strength, mobility, and dignity. Her final days are spent in an assisted living facility. In “Flu Shot”, Addonizio describes the ordeal of taking her mother to a minute clinic for said shot, a necessity not offered by the assisted living staff, leading one to wonder if the facility is better called “unassisted living”. Addonizio is humiliated for her disheveled, drooling mother. The reader hurts for both of them.
Any memoir about a writer is bound to discuss writing… and maybe just a drop of alcohol. The title essay arose after a National Book Critics Circle judge described Addonizio as “Bukowksi in a sundress.”
Addonizio’s apt response: “Once you are a published writer, open season has been declared on you, all year long, for the rest of your life.”
“How to Succeed in Po Biz” offers excellent advice for the would-be poet or writer in your life. Or perhaps that’s you. Consider this useful line: “Humans who are writers are a devastation.”
Should you wish to be a devastation, read on. Learn about the humiliation of being nominated for a major award which you do not win. Learn how it feels, while attending the awards ceremony where you have not won, to witness a famous writer urinating into a potted plant. Grasp the intricacies of accepting offers to give readings and/or workshops. Key point: accept only paying gigs. Try not to lose it when the New Yorker rejects your poems. Again. Pour vodka with lemonade; “get slightly drunk by dusk.” Buck up. Keep writing.
“Pants on Fire”, “Not Dancing”, “What Writers Do All Day” and “The Process” document the hair-pulling agony, horror, and voluntary suffering more commonly known as the writer’s life. “Pants on Fire”, astonishingly, is about prettifying the raw truth for print. “Not Dancing” opens at midday. Addonizio is stuffing handfuls of cheese crisps into her mouth with diet root beer chasers. Subject? Writer’s block.
Reading “What Writers Do All Day”, while being a writer or fancying yourself one, may present a choking hazard, especially if you have a drink nearby. A partial list of what writers do all day:
Try on your shoes.
Make lists of people who have died.
Load a bowl, pour an adult beverage, and then return to
reflecting on the journey to the end of the night.
“The Process” is a clear-eyed look at the many obstacles writers face before they can actually sit down to write. These include cleaning messy cat boxes, the litter-sprayed floor surrounding them, and trimming cat claws.
Writing is not the easiest thing. This is why so many writers drink so very much. In “How to Try to Stop Drinking So Much”, Addonizio wonders if the oversensitive writer driven to drink is a myth. Upon recalling Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Bishop, William Faulkner, Hunter Thompson, Carson McCullers, Marguerite Duras, and her own history, she is forced to reconsider. “Cocktail Time” offers an even stronger rationale (rationalization?) for the occasional libation. Writers spend enormous amounts of time alone, stuck inside their own heads. “Depending on your feelings about solitude, and your own inner life, you may understand why some of us enjoy the company of spirits.”
Fellow tipplers may enjoy the recipes included in this essay. The E-Tini and K-Tini are promised to “get you quickly dirty”. This reviewer has yet to sample either. But she will.
This reviewer also admits that she is not the most objective about Bukowski In a Sundress. You see, it arrived in her life at a terrible time. Her spouse had been rushed into emergency surgery, which he survived. She found herself reading “How to Succeed in PoBiz” while riding Bay Area Rapid Transit back to the hospital, where she was to refill his Dilaudid prescription. She herself had a raging migraine and desperately wanted some of that Dilaudid for herself.
Then she read the line about writers being devastations. She started laughing and could not stop. She forgot her headache. She forgot the horrible, insensitive people who were treating her terribly. She forgot her exhaustion and fear. She vowed to thank Addonizio profusely, should they ever meet.
This is how a great book can transport you. A great book can arrive just when you need it, pick you up, dust you off, and whisper in your ear: “Look here. See? You are not alone.” This is how books like Bukowski In a Sundress can save us. The world is full horrible people doing horrible things. Even if you don’t need saving, Bukowski In a Sundress will make life look a whole lot better.