Twenty-four-year-old Zailckas’s memoir of slurping countless cocktails isn’t pretty or unique. Blackouts, hangovers, booze-fueled shenanigans, and self-hatred mine familiar territory, but her poetic language and activist agenda move Smashed beyond the typical drunk’s memoir.
Alcohol is an active player here, a chameleon-like, multi-hued seducer. Her drinking is “fetishistic” and makes her yearning “swell.” Zailckas describes the 14-year-old friend she shares her first drink with as having “deflowered” her. “Natalie is tender afterward, the way I imagined she’d be.” A college trip to Canada allows her group to “consummat[e] our lust,” i.e., drink legally. Specific drinks inspire more passion than specific boyfriends.
Zailckas is by turns loner and conspirator; fresh from a stomach pumping at age 16, she feels helplessly lost. (On a bender with a friend, she breaks into a frat house and steals valuables.) Zailckas emphasizes her gender as a culprit, suggesting that women are more vulnerable to alcohol’s (c)harms, examining specifically female motives—to impress guys, to make sex easier, to look and feel hotter. However, Zailckas too often mistakes her own fears (of romance, dating, “the real world”) for every woman’s.
Most jarring is how clear-eyed and eloquent a narrator Zailckas is, often making it hard to picture her as a sloppy drunk. She leaves the reader hanging as to exactly how she moved from adult drinker to wise, abstaining sage. By inserting statistics about teenage drinking and examining drunk-girl porn sites to make her point, Zailckas detracts from her vivid personal story. Teenagers don’t care where they fit along national norms, only among their peers. To Zailckas’s credit, her compelling prose and searing but imperfect analysis make up for the occasional know-it-all tone. While her rant on the word whatever is unnecessary, her no-holds-barred look at her problem drinking and the culture supporting it is the wake-up call she clearly intended.