Leslie Jamison's THE GIN CLOSET

Lucy Silag

Leslie Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, is told from the alternating points of view of Stella—a thin-spired, quarter-life-crisis sufferer living unhappily in New York—and her fat, alcoholic Aunt Tilly, shunned by their family and spending the last of her miserable days in the Nevada desert. The two are brought together when Lucy, Stella’s grandmother and Tilly’s mother, dies after a long illness. Stella takes it upon herself, as one in a series of attempts to be a hero for the sake of being a hero, to drive to Nevada and inform her aunt of Lucy’s death. Compelled by deep pity, she hopes to make up for what she believes her family has done very cruelly: excluded Tilly from their folds since Tilly was a teenager.

What she finds in Nevada is that Tilly lives in her own private hell, foggy with gin and poverty, and isn’t much inclined to leave it. She’s not inclined, that is, until Stella (herself a strange but believably martyred mix of plucky and depressive) cajoles her into moving to San Francisco to  live on the goodwill of Tilly’s son, Abe. No longer interested in the married men (a college professor whom Stella longs for and is disgusted by in equal measure) and the contrived career choices (personal assistant to a wildly hypocritical pop psychologist author) New York has to offer, Stella throws herself on her newfound relatives and binds herself to their misfortunes. She does this as guilelessly as she once threw herself into the seductive but ultimately empty temptations of life in Manhattan. Stella appoints herself captain of Tilly’s self-improvement scheme, unaware of how futile these efforts seem to everyone but her. By moving back and forth between the two narrators, Jamison treats us to incisive, unglamorous, and often pathetic descriptions of both, creating a vortex of familial agony that does as much to unnerve the reader as it does to create sympathy for all the sad characters in this sad story.

Leslie Jamison might very well be her generation’s Mary Gaitskill. They are both writers who create bone-shatteringly gorgeous descriptions of place and feeling, and neither cares as much for plot as for the raw, recognizable moments that reverberate throughout their fiction. Decisions are made by characters in The Gin Closet without much resistance. Bad things simply happen, and rather than build a case for the motivations that set them off, Jamison revels in the emotional fallout of these situations. What’s important here is that Jamison does not flinch when she slices away the pale skin of her characters and reveals the bloody meat beneath. While readers may not buy that Tilly’s detox is a relatively simple affair of only about three days in a Nevada motel, and that this unskilled, two-months-sober woman manages not only to get a job at a major San Francisco trading firm, but to make friends there as well, they will certainly eat up the gloriously poetic language through which each of those developments comes to life.

The Gin Closet is a thin little novel with a dreamy cover that sets the author firmly in the genre of serious and literary fiction and gives no impression that the book will make major noise outside that small world of readers and writers. Yet her writing makes you wildly uncomfortable, shifty, restless, but unable to look away, which, combined with a more solid, more devastating, plot in her next book, will surely attract the acclaim and popularity that it deserves.

Lucy Silag is the author of the Beautiful Americans series of books for young adults.

The Gin Closet
Leslie Jamison
February 2010
Free Press
$25 hardcover, ISBN: 1439153213 
288 pages