Ordinarily, I do not care for stories about alcoholics (they tend to follow the same pattern) or about writers (as I writer myself, I don't find their challenges very interesting), which means I tend to have even less sympathy for stories about alcoholic writers. Exile on Kalamazoo Street by Michael Loyd Gray is an exception.
It is the story of Bryce Carter, a 51-year-old novelist with a drinking problem. He's been successful enough to have published three novels and sell one for a screenplay that brought in enough money he could buy a small house in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's taught creative writing in college. When he found himself going down for the third time in the Whiskey River, he exiled himself in the house, resolving not to step one foot outside the door until . . . well, maybe never. His sister who lives in town buys his groceries and delivers them and, at his request, captures a black cat that becomes Black Kitty, Bryce's constant companion.
Because he is always home, Bryce is a sitting duck (fish in a barrel?) for visitors. These include a former drinking buddy who does his best to push Bryce off the wagon, a Presbyterian minister who would like to save Bryce's eternal soul, a 23-year-old former student who has an adorable shaved vulva, a former academic colleague, and, eventually, two Hollywood flunkies dispatched to nudge Bryce into writing a screenplay based on his third novel—which is by his account "a self-indulgent mess by a self-indulgent drunk . . . a 500-page leviathan that lurches finally into incoherence about a man searching for his soul." (Exile on Kalamazoo Street is 151 pages and while somewhat self-referential and somewhat self-indulgent, it is neither incoherent nor a mess.)
The novel begins with a chapter of Bryce sliding enthusiastically into Whiskey River in a local bar, but Gray writes without apology or explanation. Good! The rest of the novel covers the months Bryce spends in exile with Black Kitty and his interactions with his visitors. His sister has sicced the minister on him: "But I couldn't be angry with Janis, my younger and only sister, a dutiful mother, freshly divorced, who believed unflinchingly in the magic the church might wield on wounded people as surely as I doubted it. Janis was an onward marching Christian soldier. But she just wanted the best for me."
Bryce is a writer, but he does not write in his exile. For one thing, he is still recovering from his third novel. Speaking about it to the minister, he says, "Many critics said there's no story at all, Reverend. I recall my agent telling me that if it sold, it would because there wasn't another book quite like it. Turns out that's a good reason why no other books are quite like it." Much later, after he's been hired to write the screenplay, "I thought of the irony of being tasked to write a film about a man with the ability to travel the world [he's won the lottery] searching for some eternal truth. I thought of truth as just a word and a good idea, but something that did not really exist. There were actions and reactions, statments and replies, but there was little that could be called truth."
And yet. And yet. I believe Exile on Kalamazoo Street is filled with truths large and small. That, and Gray's dialogue, descriptions, and the opinions he attributes to Bryce make the book delightful. Unlike the typical alcoholic memoir ("How I overcome terrific odds to overcome my drinking), this novel is a fascinating fictional account of one man's experience of internal exile. I was willing to believe every word of it.