Time to raise a celebratory, non-alcoholic toast because Sweet Adversity by Donald Newlove (one of PKM’s “Best Books By Drunks”) has just been reissued, after 40 years of neglect. Both Newlove, now age 90, and the publisher, Rick Schober of Tough Poets Press, spoke with PKM about this occasion.
Sweet Adversity by Donald Newlove, one of the classics in that vintage collection of novels about drunks, drinking and recovery, is, after four decades, back on the publishing wagon.
Tough Poets Press in Arlington, Massachusetts, has reissued the nearly 600-page novel, which when it first appeared became a touchstone in the burgeoning AA movement of the 1970s. Originally published in two parts, as Leo & Theodore and The Drunks in 1972 and 1974, respectively, Newlove combined the two as Sweet Adversity in 1978, cutting out the dross from each. The result was a rollicking, bawdy story—part high satire, part cautionary tale—of alcoholic Siamese twins named Leo and Theodore. The twins come of age in the American Midwest during the Second World War. They are, despite being conjoined, red-blooded, all-American boys, in love with cars, girls, jazz (they learn instruments and join a band) and, of course, booze. Their fall from beery grace, however, is hard, and the second part of Sweet Adversity contains some of the most graphic descriptions of the degradation of lives broken by alcohol ever put on paper.
At the time of its publication, The New Yorker called Sweet Adversity, “a dazzling highwire act,” and went on to say, “The sheer inventiveness and strength of the writing, turn risk into triumph, drunk monologues into subtle satire, AA meetings into riveting dramas, and what in another writer might be bathos into brilliant comedy.”
With notices like that, Sweet Adversity became an underground hit, picking up readers by word of mouth and passed-around dog-eared paperback copies. But then, by the mid-1980s, it, like its author, dropped off the map. The novel went out of print and Newlove returned to a quiet, sober and unremarkable life in New York City, as a contributing writer and editor for Publishers Weekly.
“In my opinion, Sweet Adversity holds up as one of the greatest 20th-century American novels ever written, and I’ve read a lot. I’d put the book in the same league as almost anything by Vonnegut or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.”
Now, with the renewed attention to his classic novel accompanying this handsome new edition, Newlove—now 90 and still living quietly in a 6th Avenue apartment in New York—is glad for the attention but also bemused and a bit confused by it too. Like his heroes Leo and Theodore, he has the air of someone who has survived chronic trauma without becoming a hardened and bitter cynic. Rather, he is a gentle spirit.
“When I was 50, they stopped reading my books,” Newlove says today. “I had a list of seven single-spaced pages of agents that I sent manuscripts to. Finally, I gave up. They were not interested. I could have written Tom Sawyer and they wouldn’t take it. After that, I was writing my own stuff for myself.” Among the latter works were works with tongue-twisting titles like Helen’s Ass Strikes Homer Blind, or The Great Memory and Archie: A Screwball Tragedy Staring Cary Grant.
“I can’t believe you’re interested in all this,” Newlove said more than once in our phone conversation. “I’m surprised anyone is interested in my writing.”To those who’ve read Sweet Adversity and Newlove’s memoir Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers, it’s no surprise at all. Before Sweet Adversity, Newlove had published other books, including a first novel, The Painter Gabriel (1970), which Time magazine called “one of the best fictional studies of madness, descent, and purification that any American has written since Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
But then the bottle let him down, so to speak, even while it lifted him back up through the act of writing about his drinking days. He was, unknowingly, the embodiment of Jim Morrison’s pronouncement, on An American Prayer, “Words got me the wound and will get me well.”
Today, he admits, “Drinking never stopped me from writing but I didn’t write too well when I was drinking. I didn’t waste time drinking on the street or in the bars. I couldn’t afford it. I went to the liquor store and bought a big bottle of something for $6 or a gallon of wine for $3, if you can believe that. I went home and I wrote.”
During the more than half-century he has lived in New York City, Newlove was never part of any writerly or artistic circles—no Beat, bohemian, hipster lineage, no schools of influence or salons. Just one man nightly battling the empty page and the bottle.
“I was not part of any group. In fact, I didn’t really even know too many writers, at least any who were publishing,” he says with a laugh. “I was at home writing.”
Newlove grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., near the Canadian border.
“I started writing at 10 years of age and drinking at 15. I would steal a bottle from my stepfather, who had a bar in the cellar. He’d go up to Canada and get a car full of liquor because it was cheaper there, then put it in our cellar. I learned how to unlock the cellar door and steal a bottle without him noticing. I had a father and three stepfathers. They all drank. Two ran clubs. We had a cellar full of booze all the time. I don’t know how I did it. Booze was everywhere.”
Still, he knew from an early age that writing would “get him well.”
“I was inspired by the usual things kids read back then, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, but then I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel at age 12. After that, I read all of Wolfe, stem to stern, which must have given me a sense of destiny. It was fairly easy read for me because it was about a family, something I longed for.”
“I always felt that I was very smart,” Newlove continues. “In the 9th grade, I had been student body president, but then I failed 9th grade. I had to do 9th grade all over again. Instead of going to high school, I joined the Marine Corps. The screwy thing was when I got out of the Marine Corps at age 18 (I joined at 17), I went back to high school.”
Only after he sobered up did Newlove start writing about his drinking experiences.
“Before Theodore and Leo and The Drunks, we only had The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson, which was made into that Jack Lemmon movie,” he said. “There was nobody to copy, nothing to use as a model so it was do-it-yourself for me from the start. I beat them all to death with Leo and Theodore.”
Newlove credits Alcoholics Anonymous with saving his life, if not his writing career.
“I joined AA when I was 35 and had two slips, just overnight slips after that. My second slip was when I was 40. That was it. I’ve stayed sober ever since. We met at a church at 56th Street and Sixth Avenue. You could only meet weekly back then. I was often the leader of the AA meeting, but not many people knew I was the author of those two novels.”
PKM talked with Rick Schober, founder of Tough Poets Press, about Donald Newlove and Sweet Adversity:
PKM: When and how did you first encounter Sweet Adversity?
Rick Schober: I first heard about Sweet Adversity last summer on The Neglected Books Page, a great website devoted to overlooked and forgotten literature and authors.
The editor of the site described it as “easily one of the most ambitious American novels of the last fifty years,” which definitely piqued my interest. At the time, the few available copies of the original 1978 Avon paperback edition were going for a minimum of $275 on used book websites, but copies of Newlove’s Leo & Theodore (1972) and The Drunks (1974) could be had for about $20 each. I read those and was blown away. Some of the best writing I had ever read and I couldn’t understand how this opus had languished out of print for 40 years. I did a little Googling and found contact information for somebody who knew Newlove (and confirmed that he was still alive and well) and put me in touch with his daughter.
PKM: How does Mr. Newlove’s novel fit in with some of the other titles in the Tough Poets Press catalog?
Rick Schober: The books I publish as Tough Poets Press (I am a one-person operation) have one thing in common. They are all non-mainstream, not easily available, offbeat works which I have read and enjoyed, and which I think others would enjoy reading too. My first published book was The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews With Gregory Corso (2015). Corso was the least known of the “inner circle” of the Beat writers. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs all had collections of their interviews published but not Corso, so I thought it would be a fun research project to track down as many interviews with the poet as I could. I found about 15 or 16, thirteen of which I was able to secure permissions for. The whole process, from initial concept to published book, took about four years. I was even able to track down Dick Brukenfeld, the Harvard student who published Corso’s first collection of poetry in 1955, and he graciously agreed to write an intro for the book. It’s a great little piece, full of all these anecdotes about Corso’s days as a “stowaway” on the Harvard campus.
“And, come on, a novel about jazz-playing alcoholic Siamese twins? Only a genius could pull that off.”
I’ve also published four books by Marvin Cohen, now 87 and still writing poetry at a frantic pace. (He emails me a new poem or two almost daily.) I first came across him in the 1964 New Directions annual when I was researching Corso’s plays. That particular issue included an excerpt from a then as-yet-unpublished novel by Cohen entitled Others, Including Morstive Sternbump. It was some of the craziest, most innovative fiction I had ever read. The novel was finally published 12 years later and went nowhere. The used copy I bought turned out to be signed by Cohen and, in his inscription, he had written his phone number. On a whim, I called it and left a message. He returned my call the same day and we agreed to terms to allow me to republish it.
Gil Orlovitz was a discovery from the Goodreads Buried Book Club, a group for fans of forgotten literature. Orlovitz was an experimental (and tragic) poet and novelist and seemed like an ideal candidate for a Tough Poets book. A good number of his early work had fallen into the public domain from lack of timely copyright renewal, including probably half of his poems and almost all of his short stories, so I didn’t have to deal with any permissions or literary estates to put together a book. That anthology, What Are They All Waiting For? (also the name of the first story in the collection), came out last summer on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Sadly, the event was completely ignored by the media, even in his hometown of Philadelphia. I will be publishing a new edition of his impossible to find second novel, Ice Never F. If all goes as planned, it should be available in May or June.
PKM: What did Mr. Newlove say when you first approached him about reissuing Sweet Adversity?
Rick Schober: Once I got his phone number from his daughter last August, I called Newlove who was thrilled at the prospect of seeing the book back in print. I explained what I had published in the past and how I worked with authors and estates and he immediately agreed to let me republish it. No hesitation at all. The only problem was that I didn’t have a copy of the book, nor did I want to shell out $275 to get one, so he loaned me one of his three personal copies to scan.PKM: Were you surprised (as I was) to discover that a) Sweet Adversity was out of print; and b) Mr. Newlove was still alive and, at age 90, fairly sharp? (Not that it’s surprising that a person aged 90 could be sharp, but he also had a history of chronic alcohol abuse, which ages a person dramatically).
Rick Schober: In my opinion, Sweet Adversity holds up as one of the greatest 20th-century American novels ever written, and I’ve read a lot. I’d put the book in the same league as almost anything by Vonnegut or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. And, come on, a novel about jazz-playing alcoholic Siamese twins? Only a genius could pull that off.
It’s a real discredit to the publishing industry that Sweet Adversity was allowed to go out of print, depriving a couple generations of readers the opportunity to experience a real masterpiece of fiction. In 40 years, surely some other publisher must have read it and acknowledged the sheer brilliance of Newlove’s storytelling. Oh well, their loss is my gain … potentially, if people buy the book.
I am pleased, but not necessarily surprised, that Newlove still has his wits about him. (The brain has great regenerative powers, I’ve heard.) And I hope he still has a few good years in him because we’re working on a collection of his earlier short autobiographical pieces that appeared, mostly in the ’60s and ’70s, in Esquire, Evergreen Review, New York Magazine, and The Saturday Review.
PKM: What is it that carries the narrative of Sweet Adversity across the 600 pages? The humor? Humaneness? Authorial voice? All of the above?
Rick Schober: All of the above. It’s a very funny novel, but it’s also a very serious novel in the way that it treats the grim reality of alcoholism. The characters are all brilliantly fleshed out; they are made “real” to the reader, and the twins are not dismissed as freaks by either the author or the other characters in the book. Despite their flaws — and they have many — Leo and Teddy are two of the most lovable fictional characters ever created by an American author.
PKM: I found echoes of A Confederacy of Dunces and even parts of Infinite Jest in Sweet Adversity, a loud and proud purely American voice. Did you hear similar echoes, or different echoes?
Rick Schober: I read A Confederacy of Dunces in the early ’80s and, to be honest, I remember very little about it (or anything about the ’80s for that matter). I couldn’t get into Infinite Jest at all. It just didn’t resonate with me. After maybe about 100 pages or so, I gave up, and gave the book to one of my daughters.
As far as Sweet Adversity having a “loud and proud purely American voice,” I agree. Geoffrey Moses, who wrote the recent Inchoatia blog review, said it reminded him of Look Homeward Angel “in its evocation of a certain kind of early twentieth-century small town life.”