Explore the process

Early Sobrieties, by Michael Deagler

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3 minute read
The book cover. In hazy purple distance, the Philly skyline; in the foreground, a desert with a car & parking meter at right.

Seven months into his recovery from alcoholism, 26-year-old Dennis Monk has been unceremoniously ejected from his parents’ Bucks County home onto the couches of various friends who have migrated to newly trendy South Philadelphia. So begins Early Sobrieties, the debut novel by Bucks County native and National Magazine Award-winning writer Michael Deagler.

Dennis’s exploits portray sobriety not as some “born again” transformation, but a daily process of adjustment and realignment. This is a slice-of-life story not only about relationships with old friends and finding footing again, but also Philadelphia itself.

The character of South Philly

“My stint was during the ciabatta melt years, arguably the zenith of Wawa’s culinary prowess,” Dennis says of his high-school tenure at Wawa, in one of my favorite passages of the book. “Roast beef. Italian. It all went downhill after they stopped slicing the meat on premise. That was how empires fall, little money-saving measures like pre-sliced cold cuts.”

It is a simple aside that verges on provincial pandering, but as a local reader, my attention was hooked. South Philly is a distinct character here, its kudzu of grit, gentrification, and endless mazes of rowhouses bewildering to a soul newly emerged from the chemical haze of addiction: “the food was all tamales and phở gà and giardiniera relishes. Burgers topped with sriracha and long hots. Cheesesteaks the size of dachshunds. Jalapeño-flavored craft beers … It was too much.”

Booze was a calling to Dennis, a fulfillment he compares to what others find in nature and religion, its absence now “louder than the absence of God.” Crashing in unaffected Grays Ferry, he finds himself killing the dull stretches between desultory writing gigs with “long walks around the neighborhood, smoking cigarettes and taking in the scenery. The broken sidewalks, the run-down houses, the rusting industrial campuses. The vacant lots, the boarded storefronts, the expressway snaking by the river.” At times akin to the symbolic ash heaps of The Great Gatsby, at others simply a familiar place turned alien, South Philadelphia plays off and externalizes Dennis.

“At night I slept with the living room windows open, hoping to coax a breeze off the river, but it was only the sounds of Pennsport that slipped in over the sill and across the vacant carpet,” he says of a stint in that southeastern neighborhood. “In my dreams I was always accidentally drinking—I would look down at my hand and, finding that it held a can of beer, realize it was my fourth—and I would wake unsure of where I was.”

Just one more day

Unfortunately, the friends Dennis crashes with don’t seem to have it together much more than he does. At age 26, he’d be a Gen Zer in 2024, but though it’s never stated outright, Early Sobrieties seems to be set sometime during the early Obama administration; the publisher’s copy describes the book as a “Millennial Jesus’ Son”. References to an ironic hipster aesthetic and a pervasive sense of aimless struggle feel very Great Recession.

Financial stability is elusive for everyone, let alone Dennis, whose tumultuous history has left him with few credentials beyond a liberal arts degree which many an older Millennial will remember being as good as useless.

“Take my years. Just leave my days. Leave me tomorrow, at the very least. An addict only ever wants tomorrow,” Dennis says near the end. “Let me show you how okay I am, how good, how sorry. How easy to love … Just give me one more day.”

The book’s ending is anticlimactic, but that’s how it’s been for our generation, and maybe sobriety is the greatest triumph Dennis Monk can hope for.

What, When, Where

Early Sobrieties. By Michael Deagler. New York: Astra House, May 7, 2024. 272 pages, hardcover; $26.00. Get it on Bookshop.org.

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