Underrated: Tremendous delirium: The case for Berryman's Recovery

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There is a glum irony to the fact that John Berryman's novel Recovery (1973), a tale of memory lapses - and blackouts, projectile vomiting and delirium tremens - should itself have become more or less lost to memory. To be sure, even its few dedicated admirers can see why it has been neglected. Not only is Recovery a brief fragment, abandoned by Berryman shortly before his death, in some ways it is hardly a novel at all: the book gives a thinly fictionalised account of time Berryman spent on an alcoholics' ward in 1970.

But if Recovery is a fragment, it is a dazzling fragment, every bit as rich and macaberesquely comic as anything in Berryman's better known poems. While its structure is simple - in therapy, its autobiographical hero is remorselessly stripped of the delusions which foster his drinking - its pages teem with asides on everything from immunology to Courbet, from Plato's letters to the wisdom of Polonius's homilies. Those brain cells which Berryman had not napalmed with booze were steeped in wide, thorough learning.

Though a classic of the literature of alcoholism, Recovery is far more than a wallow in the miseries of kicking the bottle. Berryman's notes on the unwritten part of the novel make it clear that he wanted to show that the agonies of the drying-out ward were really a special form of the pain of America in the early Seventies (shock waves from South-east Asia repeatedly trouble the book). His inmates are 'despairing and deluded sufferers fighting for their sanity in a world not much less insane itself and similarly half-bent on self-destruction'.

The heart of the book, however, is religious. The famous Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are stations on a path towards a Deity, and the 'confession' of Recovery is in the tradition of St Augustine and Pascal. In his sickness, Berryman was fighting his way towards God, and he had an exhilarating glimpse of salvation. It was no more than a glimpse: on the morning of 7 January 1972, Berryman threw himself from a bridge over the Mississippi. His legacy was some of the greatest poetry of the post-War period (still in print), some fine literary essays (out of print) and Recovery, a lost, glorious ruin of a novel worth more than any number of glibly polished fictions.