Review of ‘On the Wagon’
A ROMAN CANDLE IN THE NIGHT
‘On the Wagon: Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, sober’
By Lennox Nicholson
Publisher: Affirm Press: Melbourne, 2017
RRP: $24.99 (pb)
Reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
When I was drinking alcoholically I thought that I was a writer. But in those years I couldn’t even write a note to the milkman! However, since I became alcohol and drug free in Alcoholics Anonymous 47 years ago, I have written 39 books. They may not be “War and Peace” but they exist.
As it happens, I was introduced to AA in Cleveland, Ohio. This is close to Akron, Ohio where the hugely successful lay movement of recovering alcoholics began in 1935 and where the author of ‘On the Wagon’ visited – while following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac’s fictional characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. But there is a crucial caveat, “Lennox Nicholson” (a non de plume) travelled throughout America attempting to stay stone-cold sober, with nothing in his blood but blood.
When Nicholson (a young would-be writer from Melbourne) turned to ‘On the Road’ for inspiration, he eventually came to see more signs of wreckage and destruction than any meaningful realisation of freedom and enlightenment. Moreover, instead of booze, benzodiazepines and stolen cars, on his epic journey of adventure and discovery throughout America he relied, as the blurb of this engaging book usefully puts it, “on the generosity of strangers he meets in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous”.
Along the way, while talking about sobriety and the meaning of life, and sharing at depth his experiences of excess and self-sabotage with those quite diverse AA members he often encounters, Nicholson unveils for the general reader the exhilarating yet often arduous reality of what it is like being clean and sober, one day at a time.
Yet he is also acutely aware of being vulnerable to the possibility of relapse. In doing so he learns that, in order to stay sober, he needs to “keep coming back” to AA meetings. He also learns that, for an alcoholic person, it is the first drink (not the third or the tenth drink) that does the damage.
Conversely, as he was rightly told, “If you don’t pick up the first drink, you can’t get drunk.” Indeed, for most alcoholic men and women, picking up that first drink is likely to again lead to the spiralling desperation of uncontrolled alcoholism and the possibility of death and destruction.
In ‘On the Wagon’, Nicholson takes us inside Alcoholics Anonymous – in Australia and in the United States. As he explains, in a typical AA meeting the room is full of people who wouldn’t normally mix: “Men, women, old, young, bums, suits.” At one of his first meetings, in Melbourne, before he achieved sobriety in his early thirties, Nicholson sat down one Wednesday night and listened to a woman talk about how she hadn’t had a drink for six years. “Six years!” he thought. “Why was she still coming?”
A little later on, Nicholson came to realise that, in order to avoid the first drink, most alcoholics no matter how long they are free of alcohol need to deeply remember from whence they have come. This is most effectively achieved by listening, at AA meetings, to members, including themselves, speak about what they used to be like, what happened and what they are like now.
At his second AA meeting, a member in Melbourne said, “Listen mate, no one can tell you you’re an alcoholic or not, it’s something you need to decide for yourself.” Although this is true, in this case the bloke looked Nicholson up and down and said, “But I think you are.” As the author writes, “It was a kind of funny moment and as I took the card he held out to me, I thought to myself, get f-cked.” But, ironically, when Nicholson decided to stop drinking and to stay stopped, this was the person he rang to ask for help. As is usually the case in AA, assistance was freely given.
Given the title of the life-saving fellowship to which he belongs and still regularly attends, in this book – his first – Nicholson has chosen to use an assumed name and not his own. This is because, for understandable reasons, he desires to remain anonymous and, in the process, also wants to protect the anonymity of other members.
At first, Nicholson thought AA was just about stopping drinking. But he slowly realised “that it’s mostly about devoting yourself to living life without needing to start again”.
By regularly attending meetings, he began to examine his life clearly and honestly. As he puts it:
“It wasn’t pretty, but nor was it without hope. Minutes (free of alcohol) became days, became years and still I wasn’t drinking. I talked regularly at the meetings and people applauded; strangers talked and we applauded too. Reminding ourselves of that moment we realised we were beaten was a powerful thing: to not dwell on it in a sad-sack kind of way, but to never forget where we don’t want to return.”
It was only after he became stably sober and free of other drugs, including marijuana, which had also been a huge problem, that Nicholson decided to journey from Australia to follow Kerouac’s inspiration. This involved crossing America overland from New York to San Francisco. But instead of travelling alone, on his epic road trip a Melbourne photographer friend from AA, “Jimmy”, accompanied him. Much of this finely wrought and multilayered tale is devoted to their sometimes perilous and often massively funny enterprise, which sometimes involved riding vast distances by Greyhound bus. But so unlike Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Lennox and Jimmy’s journey would end at a massive international AA convention in Atlanta. This was what Nicholson describes as “the meeting to beat all meetings”.
Yet although it may be surprising to some readers, while comparing his own experiences of out of control indulgence to that celebrated by Kerouac, Nicholson discovers that, instead of being utterly chalk-and-cheese, the Beat writers, including the drug addict novelist William Burroughs, and contemporary members of AA may have much to learn from one another.
I will not spoil the book’s intriguing plotline by revealing how and in what ways. Suffice to say that Jimmy’s 14 coloured photographs, which document their journey, are a highlight of the book. Three standouts are a portrait of a road sign in Illinois of the historic Route 66; one of a line of Chevrolet grilles and pickups for sale in Akron which represents the dream of the road for some; and a photo of a homeless man in San Francisco holding a piece of cardboard on which is scrawled “JUST WANT A COLD F-CKIN BEER”. Like most photographers, Jimmy preferred to be behind the camera. As a caption to one of his portraits says, “there certainly is a freedom in anonymity”.
All in all, ‘On the Wagon’ is a highly satisfying read, which documents how important to Nicholson’s sobriety, and to that of most other AA members throughout the world, are the 12 Suggested Steps of recovery. In particular, this illuminating book demonstrates that, instead of being boring and commonplace, an alcohol and drug-free life can be not merely useful (a phrase rarely used to describe alcoholics while drinking!) but abundant, and passionate as well. Indeed, some AA members I know and admire can be labelled among those who, to quote ‘On the Road’, “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night”, but whose creativity lasts much longer.
There is much to praise in ‘On the Wagon’, which is well produced, and a pleasure to read. But for this reviewer two questions linger: will Nicholson stay sober and will he produce another equally beguiling book?
Especially as the latter depends on the former. I hope strongly that the answer to both questions is a resounding, and life-affirming, YES.
If I were still a punter, my money would be on “Lennox Nicholson” continuing to grow and develop and honour his talents. Also to try and help other new or old members who may be struggling in AA. Significantly, the final words of this fine work are “After all, it’s not all about me.”
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, and the author of 39 books, including a memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholics Journey’ (NewSouth Books: Sydney) which is available as an e-Book and a Talking Book from Vision Australia.
The Sydney Institute Review of Books, August 30, 2017