A new novel about drug addiction swaggers into a tough room. The classics already there should inspire shakes and palpitations, enough anxiety of influence to make all but the most desperate writer drop the idea cold turkey. Just the past three years have produced a line of beauty that stretches from Marilynne Robinson’s “Home” to Roxana Robinson’s “Cost” to Lily King’s “Father of the Rain.” These are some of the finest recent American novels on any subject, but all of them portray the horror of watching a loved one drink or snort or inject himself to death.
Each of these writers managed to say something fresh about drug addiction, which tends, in its cruel way, to reduce a great variety of people to the same predictable plot: denying the problem, promising to quit, hitting rock bottom, falling into relapse and finally climbing up (or falling down) those 12 steps. How to get that monkey off his back is the drug addict’s existential challenge; how to avoid the cliches of drug addiction is the novelist’s.
Martha Southgate offers a promising response to this problem in her latest novel, “The Taste of Salt.” Her narrator, Josie Henderson, is a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “I am the only black senior scientist there,” she tells us in the opening pages, but that, it turns out, is as much a complaint as a boast. As a child, classmates used to ask her, “How come you talk so white?” and since she was a teenager, Josie has systematically removed herself from the company of other blacks, moving first to a private school, then to Stanford and finally into a field that attracts few people who look like her. Living far from her home in Cleveland and marrying a white man only further confirmed her distance from her family. “I put it all behind me,” she says, “put them all behind me.” Now, secure in her prestigious position, she wonders if she’s not “too black in a white profession.”
Even the ocean — her second home and the novel’s underlying symbol — seems to exclude everyone in her old neighborhood. “A lot of black people,” she explains, “don’t like the water. Or perhaps I should say, they never find out whether they’d like it or not. Why? A million reasons dating back a hundred years: hair, money, time, lack of opportunity.” And so, with that candid, casual voice, Josie quickly sketches herself as an accomplished black woman, torn between pride and sorrow because she’s so removed from other blacks.
And here’s where Southgate complicates the story of addiction in an interesting way. Josie’s ambivalence about her racial identity is enmeshed in her desire to escape the stain of alcoholism that has colored her father’s life and her brother’s. She was once close to her charismatic sibling, Tick, but now, she thinks, “He’s like a stone around my neck.” To be a member of her family is to be associated with the degradations and sorrows of the bottle; to abandon them, to wash them away in the ocean, to attain a prestigious spot in the white world is to enjoy a kind of freedom she has spent her whole life craving. As her brother reaches out to her to keep himself from drowning in alcohol, her reflex is to recoil from “that little nibble of shame. . . . I’m afraid they’ll take me down with them.”