One Way Down (Or Another)
When we first meet the unnamed main character of One Way Down (or Another), he’s newly sober in San Francisco, almost through rehab. Sobriety’s all well and good, but without a place to stay or any job prospects, all he seems to have gained is a clearer view of just how broken his life is. He knows he doesn’t want to “spend [his] best days having to scrub these streets clean,” but beyond that he doesn’t have much of a plan. Ray, his boss at the kitchen where he works as part of the rehab program, offers him a place to stay and a temp job as a truck driver, picking up donations of food and clothing. One day, having lunch at a pizzeria, he drinks one beer and walks away. But the next day, having another beer with lunch, a woman from the rehab program sees him and demands the keys to the truck. So he leans into his relapse, drinking heavily on Christmas Day and eventually flying back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, perhaps to start over. But soon enough he’s back in San Francisco, perhaps to start over again.
One thing our main character doesn’t seem to find — or even look for — in sobriety is salvation. His is a mundane sort of sobriety, stripped of all appeals to a higher purpose. The phrase “there’s more to it than that” acts as a sort of refrain throughout the novel, but when the main character says so to Ray, Ray responds that “there might be more to all of this shit. But, for now, you still gotta help roll these damn bins down to the damn dumpster.” Either way, our main character doesn’t spend a whole lot of time searching for whatever else might be out there, and, as a result, he never quite justifies his place at the center of the novel. But still, while he’s too passive, his internal struggles are compelling, preoccupied as he is with a sobriety that seems both under- and overwhelming. With his temping as a truck driver while sleeping “in a city of such immense potential for failure,” one wonders if he starts drinking again because sobriety is too much or not enough.
Back in Columbus, Ohio, he attempts to face his past failures, which are “stacked like unread books at the bedside of a terminally ill person.” But he continues drinking, conversing with the people of his past in the same clipped speaking style he used back in San Francisco, and it’s here, when the novel relocates to Ohio, that a certain sameness creeps in. As filtered through the narrator’s viewpoint, hanging around the seedier parts of both towns, it’s as though Columbus and San Francisco are the same place. Everyone speaks in that same fragmented, sobering style, which might become tiresome if they weren’t all so adept at chipping away the narrator’s facade, searching for some underlying truth of their situation. In the end, this is a novel content to follow its narrator’s lead, not looking for trouble but sometimes finding it, thriving instead on the strength of his rich inner dilemmas. And so our narrator eventually returns to San Francisco, knowing he won’t find what he needs there but not knowing where else to go.
Civil Coping Mechanisms