“Captain Billy’s Troopers: A Writer’s Life”
Author: William Cobb
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $34.95 (Cloth)
Only a small percentage of alcoholics are writers but the public may be forgiven for thinking a large percentage of writers are alcoholics. After all, writers write their memoirs and are written about, and a number of America’s most famous writers—Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, to name just a few—were also famous drinkers.
The novelist William Cobb opens his memoir on what looks like the most important day of his life, on the day, that is, in July of 1984 that he saved his own life by checking into Brookwood Hospital for rehabilitation.
In detail, in painfully honest and vivid prose, reminiscent in its terrible candor of William Styron’s memoir of his clinical depression, “Darkness Visible,” Cobb tells how his wife had moved out, with their daughter. He had been drunk for weeks, missing work, waking at two or three in the morning to “snort more whiskey,” vomiting, sometimes blood.
“Drinking was a medical necessity to even feel normal.”
The bottom had been reached and he was getting, finally, the help he needed, even though he feared “the seizures, trembling, the terrors” of coming down from booze.
Cobb then outlines his life since childhood in Demopolis, sorting out the forces and choices that had brought him to that moment.
He liked the buzz right from his first beer, and alcohol released Cobb from feelings of loneliness, insecurity and inferiority. It is painful to read that his father was cold, “uncaring,” seemingly impossible to please, but dad certainly deserves a share of the blame.
Uncle Russ was an alcoholic who gave Cobb a dog but then shot the dog when she did not turn out to be a good hunter. Cobb was devastated but his dad explained: a dog that wouldn’t hunt was worthless.
Cobb found no solace either in the “soulless Presbyterian church” he attended or in his Scout leader, “a silly doofus.” He was a loner and became the life of the party only when high. A lifelong depressive who admits “happiness as others defined it was an illusion,” his anxiety was such he occasionally broke out in hives, but “with a few drinks…there would not be a trace of hives.”
“Captain Billy” is a drinking memoir but also the story of one boy’s small town life: working in the movie theatre and at the local radio station, his senior trip to D.C and New York City. There were a variety of odd jobs and adventures in Nashville before college in Livingston. There, among a group of like-minded friends, he became joyfully immersed in, he says in fact “addicted” to, literature, especially Faulkner.
An M.A. at Vanderbilt followed, studying under inspiring teachers such as Randall Stewart and Donald Davidson, one of the last of the “Fugitive Poets.” Even so, insecurities persisted: he reports feeling “a paralyzing sensation of being totally off my turf, of being somewhere I did not belong, where I did not fit…if I walked into the Commodore Room…my reaction was physical: dry mouth, suddenly blurred vision, as if something had jerked my head back, sweaty palms, a numb, frozen awkwardness to my body. I wanted only to flee.” Drinking, yet again, helped.
Life got better, with a job at Montevallo, marriage and a daughter and a rewarding writing life with early success. His story “The Stone Soldier” won first prize at “Story” magazine. There were summers writing in Vermont and the novels “Coming of Age at the Y” and “The Hermit King.”
Then there was the 1984 rehab and the fear, endured by many drinking writers, that sober he would no longer be able to create. The link between alcohol and creativity has been examined in many studies, from the popular “The Thirsty Muse” to rather scholarly works. With a few exceptions for writers (usually poets) whose work is the transcription of messages from the deep subconscious, writers do better sober than drunk. Novelists especially do better; they are marathoners, not sprinters. Three hundred page novels are not written in flashes of inspiration.
Cobb also had three plays produced in New York, during which he came to know and like a great number of actors, including Celeste Holm and other theatre people, and produced a very respectable body of novels and stories. His best novel, “A Walk Through Fire,” (1992) brought Cobb a six-figure advance, his largest. Subsequent novels earned less, but Cobb adjusted, quoting Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gives it to.”
Over time, honors would come, especially the Harper Lee Award, Alabama’s highest literary honor.
In the 30 years since rehab, life has been good for the Cobbs. They found a welcome in the Episcopal Church. They have enjoyed travel, mainly in Europe but with an extended tour in Bulgaria under U.S. State Department auspices. (A Cobb short story “The Queen of the Silver Dollar,” had been translated into Bulgarian!) They enjoy a wide array of friends, including distinguished writers: Pat Conroy, the late William Meredith, Lee Smith and many others. Now in his seventies, medical problems have emerged, but Cobb is still pounding out his prose, confident the best is yet to come.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”