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The Empty Room

Posted on Jun 6, 2014

Image by Lauren B. Davis

By Jean Randich

To see long excerpts from “The Empty Room” at Google Books, click here.

“The Empty Room”
A book by Lauren B. Davis

“For R.E.D.—if it weren’t for you, this wouldn’t be fiction.” These sober words preface Lauren B. Davis’ devastating stream of consciousness novel, “The Empty Room.” It is the story of Colleen Kerrigan, an isolated, middle-aged woman with a serious drinking problem. Waking up Monday morning from a blackout bender, Colleen gazes at a postcard of Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne. “The tiny room, the whitewashed walls, the simple desk and chair, the photos on the walls, the crumpled bits of paper, the bottle, the astonishing work Thomas created there. … This was Colleen’s idea of perfection.” Even in Colleen’s perfect idyll, the bottle claims its place. “They don’t call it spirits for nothing” is her nervous refrain. Where Davis’ writing blazes is in her ability to dissect the patterns of fear, denial, lies and justification that propel an alcoholic further into an addiction that destroys everything she has and is. 

By telling the story from Colleen’s point of view, Davis is able to blindside the reader the way Colleen’s binging and blackouts blindside her. When she first drinks, Colleen is sensual and relaxed—she delights in the fire coursing through her veins. But the highs ebb, and the accelerating dance of bad choices and worse behavior achieves an almost unbearable sense of dread.

Like James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “The Empty Room” tracks an entire life that plays out in one day. Far worse than watching hung-over Colleen negotiate the Toronto subway and arrive late for work at the university, is to see her panic at a professor’s simple request for a stack of photocopies she was to have made. Davis makes you feel the sweat dripping from Colleen’s pores. Called on the carpet and confronted with her drinking, she is given a chance to go to rehab and keep her position. Colleen savagely bats back any intervention. Drink is a relationship so primal, she’d rather lose her job.

Davis’ narrative also intrigues structurally. As Colleen muddles through her day, random details trigger shameful memories that play like reruns in her head. We see Colleen as a child, stranded between an absent but loving alcoholic father and a bitter, mentally ill mother. As in her critically acclaimed novel, “Our Daily Bread,” Davis excels once again at quietly observing the cruelty children must survive at the hands of abusive parents. These flashbacks are inflected with a child’s point of view, so Colleen relives these horrors without gaining insight into the deep grooves they’ve etched. The reader, however, flinches as the patterns of cruelty amass.

Davis brings fierce honesty and compassion to Colleen’s odyssey. She doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and humiliation of alcoholism. Colleen foolishly opts to take placement tests at a temp agency while under the influence. She even buries a vodka-filled salad dressing bottle in her bag and sneaks it in with her—“just in case she got nervous.” Too befuddled to contend with the questions, Colleen interrupts an IQ test to steal a nip in the ladies room:

She found the friendly bottle, unwrapped it from its plastic overcoat, opened it and tilted it to her lips. Just a little and she’d relax. … It didn’t take much, just a small unthinking adjustment, and the salad dressing bottle slipped. She felt it go and snatched at it, but was too slow. She watched it fall to the floor and as it fell she thought, maybe it won’t break. Maybe it will just fall and I’ll be able to nab it and stuff it back in my bag with no one the wiser. Maybe it will be all right. 

The corner of the bottle hit the unforgiving tile and didn’t merely break, it exploded. Pink vodka flew everywhere. The woman in the other stall yipped, and for a moment Colleen feared a piece of glass might have struck her.

Then the room went still. Fumes rose to Colleen’s nostrils, acrid and unmistakably alcoholic.

“Is everything okay?” a woman’s voice said.

“Fine, thanks,” said Colleen. The woman, whoever she was, didn’t respond, and Colleen felt obliged to explain. “I dropped a bottle of salad dressing.”

A moment’s silence, and then “Bummer,” followed by a flush.

Davis employs black humor to create cognitive dissonance. Colleen remembers getting sick-drunk for the first time at age 14, and sees herself sprawled on the bathroom floor, her mother towering over her, about to slap her in the face: “This won’t hurt at all, she thought, and sure enough, it didn’t, and under the force of the blow her head turned in slow motion so that she could watch the toilet tank approaching her forehead, although she didn’t remember a thing after that.”

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