In Jerzy Pilch’s novel, beautifully translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, a writer named Jerzy has been to the “alco ward” 18 times. Each time, he has left with his alcoholism firmly intact. The novel (which takes its name from a bar frequented by Jerzy, as well as a quote from Revelation cited in one chapter: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud . . .”) is a lively, poignant, and often funny examination of a central question: “I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”
Jerzy occasionally stops to chronicle the experiences of his ward mates, a group worthy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with colorful pseudonyms like The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Hero of Socialist Labor, and the Sugar King. But the majority of the action is Jerzy’s internal struggle with what it means to drink, to write, and to write about drinking.
Alcoholism, in The Mighty Angel, is an existential strategy first, aimed at coping with the fact that “life in general is a life sentence,” the world itself is “one big illness,” and “The waking world is one immense reason to drink.” If those sentiments are grave, much of what Jerzy writes is lighter: “I have long observed that a distinct asymmetry in the male physique enhances the languishing receptivity of women. The mystery of this aberration cannot be unlocked, however, without drunken hypotheses, and for the moment I set it aside.” Pondering the computer that defeated Garry Kasparov at chess, he thinks: “until they invent the computer that can drink more than a person, humankind has no need to feel that its essence is under threat.”
Love threatens to save Jerzy in the end, but whether or not this salvation is realistic (or this love is even real) remains open to interpretation; appropriate in a book that is drawn to difficult questions, not easy answers.
The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch
Open Letter, 155 pp., $15.95