Book Notes

Denial, the River in Egypt: Cat Marnell, George Jones

February 01, 2019

A review of memior by Cat Marnell and a biography of George Jones "How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir"
By Cat Marnell

"The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones"
By Rich Kienzle

The inherent nature of addiction memoirs is that the part where the addiction is acquired is always more fun to recount (and read) than the part where the memoirist makes the slow, painful slog to recovery. Shenanigans are always more exhilarating than the reckonings that follow. But sometimes, lives do not go down this rutted pathway so easily, as two otherwise widely-divergent life accountings I just read have attested to: A memoir from Cat Marnell and a biography of country music singer George Jones.

These two individuals could not be any different from one another, and yet both share a common trait: Neither entirely succumbed, at least at the time these books were written, to swearing off their demons entirely. Jones continued his drinking, at least to "moderate" levels, late into life. And at the end of her tale of sometimes harrowing substance abuse, Marnell coyly sidesteps the typical recovery ending, confessing to nibbling on an Adderall before exercising.

After some saucy preliminaries about D.C. latchkey upbringing (with some interesting dirt on the partying habits of rich DC kids), Marnell focuses on her post-college years working as a fashion/beauty editor for the Conde Naste during the day, while getting wrecked at night. “The more amphetamine I took, the more fun being by myself was, actually. Speed was like magic. Lonely magic," she wrote. It's enjoyable in the usual young-woman-coming-of-age-in-NYC way. Marnell's prose is punchy, clever, and very conscious of keeping the reader entertained--a carryover in part from the skills of forced brevity that one obtains from magazine writing.

Marnell did not get much out of rehab, evidently. "Before I arrived, I thought rehab was like, I don't even know, a place where a party girl could recharge her batteries, you know, before she could return all refreshed and healthy feeling,” she wrote.

And after, she wasn't much impressed either. “I’ve had tanning bed experiences that were more transformative,” she wrote.

But it's Marnell's second act that, in retrospect, is even far more interesting (Ahh the indestructibility of youth!). After being ejected by the New York magazine publishing world for being too extra -- she returns to NYC to work in the emerging world of high-profile first person-driven blogging sites (XoJane, Vice), which allowed her to indulge, and even capitalize, on her ferocious drug appetite.

And the work, XOJane especially, gave her a signature voice, a sort of unholy melding of service journalism with the underground drug culture. It's here she found fame for raw, edgy writing, and being a sort of 21st century successor to Hunter Thompson. (I wish someone would compile her writing from this period).

That voice is maintained in this book as well: “That’s how you come down from angel dust," she wrote. "You pound whole milk. Weird, right? Don’t ask me how it works, but it does.”

My interest in George Jones was piqued by a comment made by Tyler Mahan Coe (Of the excellent "Cocaine and Rhinestones" podcast) about who he thought the best country music singer was. It was George Jones ("Whoever else you'd pick would also say George Jones"). Both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett respected Jones as a singer, and he remained a country singer, and only a country singer, for his entire career.

George Jones (Known as Glenn to his childhood friends and family) grew up in the thickets of Saratoga Texas, a hard impoverished place where a man was expected to provide for his family, and a woman was to care for the family and put up with her man, whatever the cost. An occasional moonshiner, the father of George, who was the last of 8 kids drank hard as well, and when he'd get home drunk, he'd called for George and his singer to sing for him, else get a whipping by the belt. George had taken from music pretty much from birth, a child prodigy of sorts.

Naturally, he got out of the house as soon as he could. He found that busking in Jasper, a town not too far from Beaumont, got him $24. By that time, his parents moved to Beaumont, to take part of the booming war work. His sister had married her boyfriend, a farmer, in order to get out of the house, and George would visit them as well, sometimes pretending to be a hobo at the door as a prank.

His early years after leaving home were furtive, full of trouble and all about playing music. His friends noticed he never seemed to have a home, but just drifted from staying at one person's house to another, even borrowing his guitars. When his father would com round, the old man would be drunk, asking for money.

George got married early, an ill-fated coupling that lasted barely three years, before she filed for divorce, his drinking and brutish behavior cited as reasons. To make the child support payments (yes, they had a child even as he drifted to from one dead-end job to another), the judge gave the young Jones the choice o going to jail or joining an armed service. He picked the Marines, because they had no wait list. Somehow, he didn't get shipped Korea, where there was a police action underway, but to Santa Cruz instead. There he finds happiness singing in the clubs on the weekend, where he was favored because he could sing any of the hits.

Notes and Quotes ("How to Murder Your Life")

“Adderall and scissors do not mix. You should only be allowed to have one or the other at home.”

“The whole point of having interns is to haze them, and to make them fucking earn their future careers.”

“Internships, they are full of awkward moments, and uncomfortable initiation rituals.”

“Bulimia attracts mice: Fact.”

“Out on the streets, rats run this town, ala Rihanna and Jay-Z. The mice here are far more insidious. They invade your apartment.”

“I was so cranked that you could have called me an old-timey car and sold me to Jay Leno.”

“I was getting into some real pillhead shit, like twisting time-release capsules open to make them work faster.”

“Before I arrived, I thought rehab was like, I don’t even know, a place where a party girl could recharge her batteries, you know, before she could return all refreshed and healthy feeling.”

“I’ve had tanning bed experiences that were more transformative.” Cat Marnell on rehab.

“You’ll find them at every nice rehab, in fact — spoiled, shit-talking, adult children on chaise lounges, smoking cigarettes that they charge to their parents. Sorry, but it’s true.”

“Being clean had felt really great in Connecticut. But back in Manhattan, not being on stimulants just felt wrong. My energy didn’t match the city’s energy any more.”

“Part of Jane’s glamor was that she was infuriatingly unglamorous.” — Cat Marnell on XO Jane founder Jane Pratt.

“I’m HIV-free. My ER doctor told me so.”

“I had to push myself to get out there. No more isolating. ‘Recluses get weak,’ as Jenny Holzer said.”

“We squirreled away in Marco’s apartment and snorted tiny piles of off-white heroin all night.”

“On my first visit, I walked in with $200 cash, and out with so many paper prescriptions that I could literally spread them and fucking fan myself.” #CatMarnell “How To Murder Your Life”

Courtney Love should get a lifetime achievement award of sorts for showing up in other people’s memoirs during the most chaotic times of their lives. It’s like a superpower

“There’s not even champagne here, Julie, it’s just fucking Prosecco.”

“You know how in in ‘Meet The Parents,’ Ben Stiller is all ‘You can’t say bomb on an airplane?’ I guess the same goes for writing heroin in a work e-mail”

“I’ve been stuck in a gnarly cycle of performance-enhancing drug abuse, followed by completely falling apart ever since ... As my addiction has continued to progress, I’ve stopped trusting my brain to do anything on its own.”

“Runner’s high is so crazy, especially when you boost that shit with a little nibble of adderall just before you hit the treadmill.”

“Unhealthy people attract other unhealthy people. And girls on drugs attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures.”