Perhaps the most familiar image of alcoholism is that of someone declaring their addictions to an audience of strangers. I am (blank) and I am an alcoholic is frequently depicted as the most arduous step on the unsure staircase of recovery.
Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel is a novel that presents an alcoholic protagonist who finds every possible way to avoid saying that sentence.
This character — also named Jerzy, also an author — is back in the alco-ward, re-acquainting himself with its doctors, its "she-wolf therapists" and the ranks of fellow drunkards that he's lived among many times before. Jerzy is the ward's unofficial historian, and he puts his authorial skills to use by accepting pay in exchange for writing mandatory journal entries that he and his comrades must complete as part of their recovery program. In his forged accounts, Jerzy repeatedly identifies battles between the complexities of compulsion and the simplicity of the cure, and it's this ongoing discussion that rests at the heart of the book.
Jerzy's roommate, Christopher Columbus the Explorer, believes that "there is no philosophy of drinking. There is only technique," no why you do, only how you do. Jerzy echoes this attitude. When asked for the umpteenth time why he drinks, he says, "I don't know, or rather I know a thousand answers... I drink because I drink." This sentiment is endemic to the identities of so many characters here that the mere notion of quitting is nothing short of revelatory. "It occurred to me to not drink," says Swobodziczka, a gifted doctor and relentless drunk, seconds before he downs a Baczewski.
Pilch's prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it's not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather's life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book's often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch's credit, both of Jerzy's possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.