The Mighty Angel, by Jerzy Pilch

04/29/2009 4:00 AM |

[Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston] Open Letter
Available now

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.