The Valedictorian

Volume One.

The Valedictorian

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These five novels are grounded in the way that addiction treatment was practiced in twelve step institutions at the turn of the century. The methods, personalities, conflicts and stories in the book are as realistic as I can make them without impinging on anyone’s expectation of privacy.  I am a superb listener gifted with an incredible set of ears. I have reproduced the opinions I was privy to in my career as faithfully as I could. Delighting most in the extreme ones.

The profession has long since moved on in new directions. Much of what I describe has to be understood as belonging to a decade past. Good people did wonderful things often times at great personal cost. A whole generation of addicts and alcoholics got sober and stayed sober using these methods. This book celebrates that body of work and the remarkable people who did it.

The Valedictorian

The method of this book is derived from an observation made by Robert Alter. He argues that the original rules for Hebrew poetry can be glimpsed in an often misunderstood passage from Genesis. The original Hebrew audience was not looking for the rhymes and metrical patterns that we expect to find in poetry. What they expected to see were lines of similar length and content, lines that contrasted each other and invited comparison and comment.

... So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)

This is the underlying structure of the novel. I compare and contrast ghosts who can’t quite get to heaven, with drug addicts and alcoholics who are miserable when they are sober and full of self hatred when they use, and who similarly can’t decide which path to embrace. How do addictions counsellors; who are themselves recovered addicts and alcoholics, maintain their own sanity as they watch their clients struggle for their very lives? How do they move on from where they are to where they long to be? This book is a prolonged meditation on being stuck and breaking free.

We are swimming in dangerous waters. Asking the fundamental questions of the human experience. Do individual lives have meaning? Do our choices matter? Is love a delusion? Can people really change? Is there a God and if there is does God help people?

A portion of this novel is counter cultural in that it calls the dominant treatment mode in Ontario into question. The book is undeniably biased towards twelve step programs and a belief that a talking cure for addiction offers the best outcome for those now assailed by addiction. As you can imagine that is a sticky surface to traverse in the 21st century.

I have been teaching and thinking about this subject for twenty years. I hope that I have presented this material about spirituality and spiritual development in a way that engages everyone and offers no offence. The methods we used at Punanai House are foundational. I take the view that any student of this discipline needs to understand and master these techniques before they decide to embrace, alter or reject them.

In the novel I have taken great pains to express all points of view accurately and fairly, and I put them into a dialogue in a way that an intelligent person who has no personal experience of an addiction can make sense of. The book is aimed at an intelligent reader with limited knowledge of the subject. A reader who is curious enough about the process of addiction to stand next to the fire but one who has no desire to be singed.

The five book series is entitled Punanai and draws it’s name from the provocatively named Punanai House. Yes until quite recently it was a real place right here in Toronto. Yes your intuition is correct, the treatment center is named after The Man-Eater of Punanai by Christopher Ondaatje. The name also carries a powerful sexual undertone that comes to us through Jamaican slang. It’s so much fun pretending that I don’t know that when readers invariably ask.

There is no substitute for experience, but sweetener can taste awfully like sugar.  I describe addictions from the inside out. I pay meticulous attention to the thought process and the emotions that people in addiction experience. I am especially cognisant of the turmoil they endure as they sort through competing versions of what is happening to them  as they go back and forth between wanting to stay sober and wanting to drink.

Punanai is an extraordinarily long novel necessarily rendered in five parts.  My method in writing it never varied. I take one person’s physical body as a starting point for a character, I add to that another persons personality and then have them experience things that happened to entirely different people. It didn’t take long for these patchwork characters to take on a consciousness of their own. The lived experience of alcohol and drug addiction is eerily predictable. The gauntlet that we have all run as individuals is in recovery understood as a shared experience. On this basis I make the claim that no one reading this book can reasonably say, ‘Hey, you’re talking about my stuff.’ 

For that to be the case one would have to be able to demonstrate ownership of an original sin. My hope is that people will exclaim, “Hey he is talking about our stuff.”
I deliberately asked two rather conservative women with no experience of addiction to read an early draft of The Valedictorian. They both enjoyed it. I was surprised and asked why? They said they had always wanted to go on a cocaine run. They liked the first 100 pages of the book because in grounded the addiction process in the familiar world of families. Addicts and Alcoholics who have read the text report that it tallied with their experience of addiction and recovery. Two people who were in crisis with a loved ones addiction when they read the book found the material too disturbing and they were unable to finish the book.

There was universal agreement that the best part of the work is my Ghosts. John whose initial tirade opens The Valedictorian was a client who died on the premises while in treatment for alcoholism. He fancies himself an expert on that subject and many others. In life he was by temperament an anarchist  and in terms of career a failed actor cum lighting technician. He occupies his time practicing his craft with theatre of the mind exercises.

His one friend is Peter. A lonely self made millionaire who put his faith in cryogenics. A man who hopes to outrun the devil himself in pursuit of his one true love. This unlikely pair team up to investigate the properties of ‘the light’, a mysterious phenomenon that appears to be stalking them. Does it serve a purpose? If so whose? Their investigations and instigations from the other side of the grave provide us with insights into the characters lives that we would otherwise have no access to. Ghost are unscrupulous gossips and the best eavesdroppers imaginable.

Our protagonist Arthur Wilberforce Cardel is a young drug addict who gets into trouble with cocaine while he is away at his first year of college. His love interest  Rachael Dunning produces a Documentary about his struggles and she encapsulates the books main concerns in her prologue to the final scene of her work.   

“This is the final shot. This is where I plan to pop the big existential question. What I want Arthur to tell me is what it’s like to be in the middle of a change, a change that you are not sure that you even want to make, and maybe even a change that you don’t think you can pull off.  But to do that I need Arthur to go a lot deeper. When other people have tried to do this on TV they always go over the top. There is always a lot of drama, threats and promises, but that is not what I want. That’s what people do when they bail on the whole process. There has to be a moment when you simply know.

My original thought was to ask Arthur to write his obituary. But he is so clever and lucid he could do that and never tell me what it is that I really want to know. I am hoping this room is going to allow him to go somewhere very dangerous. It doesn’t matter much what he has done, it’s how he feels about it that is important. I need him to tell me what all of his outrageous behaviour means.
Maybe I am the one being ridiculous this time. What could he possibly say that would satisfy my curiosity about him and give me a riveting ending to this story? I am sitting here blabbing about truth and meaning, but is this just so much flapping of the wings and hoping to fly, is this just some crazy dance I am doing to amuse myself? I’m between the ship and the shore here too. That is why I love this drug [documentary film], with all its carefully nuanced layers of curiosity, shame and needing to show and tell.” 

A review by Arthur G.G.

One of Dave Elliot’s gifts as a writer is that he can paint a
realistic depiction of addiction – the highs, the lows, the promises
(lies) to oneself and loved ones that somehow inevitably unravel. The
story arc in the book is amazing and great compliments to the author
for ingenuity and creativeness in crafting a unique story.

The main story line is about a medical student named Arthur and his
struggle to identify meaning (avoid addiction/find his calling) in his
own life. For a large part of the book, I felt as if I was watching a
film – the realistic descriptions of the urban geography of Toronto,
Kingston, and Southern Ontario give a certain life to the book that
goes beyond the story of addiction. I think Davie might have lived
some of these places in the way that Arthur does... Otherwise, how
could one do such details... The bug cleaning in Kingston is a detail
not many would include.

The books transitions between surreal moments – (spoiler) an affair
with a professor, drug binges, and a girlfriend doing a documentary
all while Arthur is in-and-out of rehab.

The characters are so real you can smell them, but there are so many
characters that the character development often seems to start then
stall. The male characters seem better developed than the female
characters, but even many of the male characters (the counselors and
father) have only windows of development. The counselors are key
player, but have little backstory so they lose what power they could
to the novel. They are still great characters.

What this the author does incredibly well… The author uses a story
about ghosts that float through life literally by the scruff of the
neck of innocent bystanders. These ghosts  are our hungry ghosts.
Hungry ghosts in Buddhism are the addicts looking for meaning. They
are the ghosts of Christmas past that show us our lives are spent on
frivolities rather than meaningful events. This is one of the most
interesting parts of this part that is underdeveloped and I hope in
the following books we learn more.

The Valedictorian by David Elliot is an excellent book. I recommend it
to anyone that struggles and anyone that want to live a clean life.