John West begins his lyrical and carefully structured memoir, Lessons and Carols: A Meditation on Recovery, with a kind of road map for the text that will follow:
The past unfolds into the present like a flower opening up its petals, revealing its gold-dusted center. Like, in the beginning was the Word, and then, suddenly, a baby is born in a stable, and then the beginning’s meaning arrives, pollen borne on a bee’s body.
Religion is a central concern throughout the memoir, but it functions more as an organizing principle rather than a spiritual practice, its more prescriptive elements stripped down into poetic imagery that conjures an abiding sense of the search for meaning beyond the self. The unfolding past that West narrates, even as he focuses squarely on how to imagine a possible future, is one of destructive addiction and his ongoing struggles with mental illness. The body and its attendant desires take the form of obstacles that must be overcome.
West’s title refers to a traditional Christmas Eve service originating in the late nineteenth century during which “lessons” are imparted through the recitation of specific biblical passages featuring stories ranging from the fall of man to the birth of Christ. Each lesson is followed by the singing of carols. West and his nonreligious friends earnestly enact the service every year, choosing to seek meaning from communal ritual, rather than any specific devotion to the practice of Christianity. The memoir thus adopts a similar structure—“lessons” are delivered as chapters loosely structured around particular periods in his life, with the subsequent “carols” serving as memorials to those dead or lost who have affected him in some intrinsic way. West also follows each carol with translations of lines from an elegy by the Latin poet Catullus, infusing his own text with the poetic echoes of the ancients as he searches for grace in rehabilitation.
As a new parent, the arrival of a newborn in his care serves as the occasion for the reckoning with his past that gives the memoir both its shape and its sense of urgency. (Re)birth as a metaphor is made literal as West agonizes over the common frustrations and indignities of parenthood while tracing the circuitous path that has preceded him: struggles with excessive drinking throughout his young adulthood, the fits and starts of a queer sexual awakening, the debilitating effects of depression and mental illness, and an ongoing quest for love and redemption in the face of his feelings of deep resentment—a state of being that he refers to as “a name for a memory left too long in a warm, damp place.” The memoir is his performance of rooting out these painful memories and holding them up to the light, as if simply to offer them up to the reader is to hopefully relinquish them of their power over him.
Lessons and Carols is told in a series of brief and artfully distilled vignettes that move back and forth in time to form a recursive spiral narrowing almost imperceptibly into a profound testament to the redemptive power of love. West’s narrative unfolds beautifully yet obliquely, like hazy recollections called forth through a scrim of booze and emerging only partially from the dark. “Someone tells me that writing is always in the service of either getting laid or getting even,” he writes. “Maybe, I think—but only if it’s possible to get even with yourself.”
West is generous rather than damning about his personal struggles, resisting a narrative of recovery that erases the version of himself who once submitted so destructively to vice. He writes about the concept of faith as much as a battle for selfhood as it is also a surrender to a higher power, a metaphor for our collective quest for meaning in whatever form it might take: “A faithful atheist, a recovering alcoholic, a self who has changed. The thing about a paradox, I suppose, is that you don’t find your way out; you live inside it.”
Other voices join West in his search for meaning, including, but not limited to, the poets John Ashbery, Anne Carson, Robert Hass, Emily Dickinson, and Jack Gilbert, as well as thinkers as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maggie Nelson, and John Calvin—and, of course, Catullus, whose lines in West’s translations evoke the bitterness of grief and loss combined with the importance of ritual and remembering. West recalls a friend noticing that he uses “a lot of quotations” in his writing, wondering aloud whether he might be “hiding behind their words.” But the balance of extratextual evidence and personal revelation is precise and meaningful as he portrays his search for answers to difficult questions across a wide array of sources, assembling a workbook for how to live better and more generously, both for himself and for others in his life. Lessons and Carols is a transfixing journey through hardship on the way to grace.
About the Reviewer
Richard Scott Larson is a queer writer and critic who has recently earned fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His debut memoir will be published next year by the University of Wisconsin Press.