Bad Sex
by Clancy Martin
(Tyrant Books, September 2015)

I’m not a big fan of drug war rhetoric. Contra to decades of D.A.R.E. propaganda and concerned Boomers wringing their hands over jenkem, butt-chugging, and other made-up moral panics, it’s entirely possible to snort a line or pop pills every so often without turning into a Montana Meth Project zombie, shuffling around looking for braaaiiinnnsss and Tootsie Rolls. There are plenty of functional drug addicts who do rails on Saturday night and go into work Monday morning without missing a beat.

Having said that, alcoholism and drug addiction are sad things to witness, a point reinforced by Bad Sex, a novel about alcoholism that deftly avoids mawkish moralizing in favor of showing one alcoholic’s descent into professional and personal ruin. While I have plenty of stories to tell about alcoholics and the horrors they’ve visited upon both me and themselves, one story in particular stuck out while I was planning this review.

Two years ago, when I still lived in Chicago, I was visited for a weekend by a friend I’d known for a long time but hadn’t seen in ages. I’d been warned by my friend’s wife that he was developing a drinking problem, but I brushed it off because she was a teetotaler; as Osborne Cox might put it, next to her, we all have a drinking problem.

That evening, we went downtown to attend a taping of the NPR show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and had an hour to kill before the program started when he asked me if we could go get a drink. Keep in mind that it was only six in the evening and we were planning to go to a bar afterwards to eat and drink. Also keep in mind that we were in the Loop, which has the worst nightlife scene in Chicago, with most everything closing up by seven and what was left being insultingly overpriced.

When I told my friend that I’d rather wait, he acted like he was a thirsty man in the desert and I was depriving him of water. It was disturbing to watch a man who I once looked up reduced to near-tears because he couldn’t get a drink. After he pleaded for a few minutes, I relented and suggested a bar nearby that was decent.

While this is hardly the worst alcoholic story that I have, it’s one that symbolizes the nature of alcoholism. As Terror House Editor-at-Large Calvin Westra once put it, addiction to any substance gradually erodes a man’s humanity, enslaving him to his disturbed cravings. His perception of reality becomes warped around the axle of his lusts, smashing his career and relationships to dust in the process. While it’s possible to escape the hole of addiction, few people have the force of will to fight off their demons.

Bad Sex by Clancy Martin is one of Tyrant Books’ standout releases precisely because it so accurately documents the pain and suffering that addiction causes. The story of a recovering alcoholic whose adultery sets off a chain reaction of disaster, Martin’s understated prose and attention to detail elevates a simple premise into page-turning wonderment. As a study of addiction and its consequences, Bad Sex is a fascinating read.

Martin’s novel concerns Brett, a novelist who has seemingly gotten her shit together, gone sober, and started a family with a loving husband, Paul. While vacationing alone in Central America, Brett runs into Eduardo, a friend of Paul’s, and begins an affair with him, tugging at the single thread that causes the tapestry of her life to fall apart:

You always want a man to say that to you but they never do. When I’d stopped drinking I stopped behaving this way and I thought it was behind me. As I got into bed with him, I was still thinking, this is not the kind of thing that I do. He took the back of my head with one hand, and my throat and the base of my chin with the other. He kissed me.

Martin’s prose style has a quiet roar to it, eschewing flash and pomp for clearheaded narration. While individual sentences might lack a punch on their own, when layered on top of each other, they build into a greater whole, like some kind of twisted Minecraft project, or a Jenga tower about to fall.

Bad Sex also uses an interesting stylistic choice of short chapters, with some being only a paragraph or two long. In many cases, Martin will break up individual scenes into multiple chapters, which seems odd but actually aids the book’s flow by separating the novel into disparate themes. Each bite-sized chunk of Bad Sex had me thinking, “Okay, just one chapter and I’m done for the night,” only to keep reading until I was halfway through the book.

But what really makes Bad Sex so addictive is the unflinching, painful lack of sentimentality. I don’t know if Martin himself has experience with alcoholism, but his depiction of the spiral of insanity that alcoholics unavoidably descend into is so real that it hurts. One early example is Brett narrating the tale of how she was drunkenly stumbling around London one night when a man offered to pay her for a blowjob:

“I didn’t say you could fuck me,” I said. “You shouldn’t be doing it like this.”

He said, “You’re right,” and raped me in the ass.

Brett relays the story with a disturbing lack of affect, as if she were talking about the weather. That’s how addiction works in the real world, not the lachrymose world of evangelicalism and Oprah, where booze and pills are just obstacles to be cleared en route to a meeting with the Almighty. Normal people ask themselves how smackheads, boozers, and other addicts can allow themselves to be degraded continuously, and the answer is because they don’t think. In the words of the Joker, they just do things.

It sounds contradictory to say what I’m about to say after criticizing the moralizing nature of drug war propaganda, but drug and alcohol addiction destroy a person’s soul. Indulging in a base addiction makes you base, stripping you of your humanity and turning you into an animal who lives only to prey on others. From blackmailing their friends to sleeping with drug dealers (for discounts; not even freebies, just discounts) to shoving fat girls around at bars, the depths to which I’ve seen alcoholics descend are so ridiculous that even I have difficulty believing my own memories.

Brett is the platonic alcoholic: a woman whose spirit ebbs away with every shot she downs. Reading Bad Sex is like watching a time-lapse video of a corpse decomposing, bits of flesh rotting and falling off the body of Brett’s life. One of Martin’s most remarkable achievements is to insert the reader so thoroughly into Brett’s mind to the point where even her craziest and most ridiculous behavior seems normal. For example, later in the book, she has a psychotic break while on an airplane, accusing a woman knitting something of being a terrorist:

“I am not safe in this seat. I think she should put that needle away or be taken off the plane. I mean, if you need to land this thing, I understand.” I gave the woman with the needle a look like, See what you just did? No more first class for you, lady.

Western literature of the past century has spent much ink on imitating the voices of the mentally ill, but few nail it as thoroughly as Bad Sex does. In Brett’s mind, it’s perfectly rational to suck a random guy’s dick for money, accuse a person on a plane of being a terrorist because they’re knitting something, or detonate a marriage over an affair. She’s no longer human; she’s abandoned her critical faculties, her sentience, replacing it with a great big void where her soul used to be.

I won’t spoil the ending of Bad Sex, other than to say that it chilled me to the bone. In the world of addiction, there are few happy endings, just tales of continual degradation and death. James Frey’s junkie story ended with phony triumph; Eddie Little, the infinitely better writer he plagiarized, died a smackhead’s death, overdosing in an roach motel. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Bad Sex’s economy of language and lack of sentimentality might turn off readers who prefer their sentences with more baggage, but for fans of heavy-hitting prose and torturous honesty, Martin’s novel will wrack your nerves and chill your guts. This is alcoholism laid bare, without the fake tears and the phony redemptions. This is your life on booze, ending one sip at a time.

Click here to buy Bad Sex.