I drove ninety miles from Bangor to Lubec, Maine on day three of a three-day hangover. The dehydration pounded against my eyeballs, scraped its sharp fingernails along the inside of my skull. Sobriety had been a hard, one-year streak, a good try, ended just four days prior. The road blurred past, much as the binge had—quickly and with little definition.

In Bangor, at the car repair place, I had sucked Diet Coke through a straw, listening to the rattle of the ice, while the mechanic told me that something called the ABS controller in my old Saab was broken. This black box of electronics had to be shipped to New Jersey for repair. It would be gone for a month and cost hundreds of dollars, but the car would still be drivable.

He said, “You won’t have anti-lock brakes, but you’ll still be able to stop.”

I took a sip of soda and thought about how I hadn’t been able to stop for years without going into a skid.

I authorized the work and wrote a check. The mechanic removed the part, and I was free to leave.

“Oh, by the way,” he said, once it was too late to change my mind. “Your speedometer won’t work either.” Seeing my eyes widen, he chuckled. “Guess you’ll just have to drive slow.”

Slowing down sounded fine. I ate a handful of Tylenol to get me across the ninety miles to home, and got behind the wheel.

I drove from Bangor to Lubec, past the hunting lodge, the derelict Cloud 9 hotel, and the logging roads. My sunglasses turned it all to amber, took away the brightest tones and vanished the dark ones. Was I going too fast? Too slow? The gauges were missing, and I had to rely on external cues—other cars, the blurred roadside. My odometer didn’t work either, so on my road to nowhere, I wasn’t even making any miles.

It was time to give up. On this old car, I mean, but also on any hope of moderating my drinking. My willpower was like a young babysitter who put on movie after movie for me so she could talk on the phone with her boyfriend, but I could sneak past her if I waited for the right moment. My addiction was trickier than its keeper.

The sun beat down through the sunroof, making my headache worse, but I liked that. I had always liked hangovers. I liked their clawed tenacity. My hangovers were strict babysitters, enforcing rules: no junk food, no staying up late, no loud music. Good hangovers kept me in line long enough to make all sorts of promises I had no hope of keeping. Good hangovers took me to the outer margins of my errors and made me pay for the effort it took to see them clearly. Like squinting at a bright light. That pain felt redemptive somehow, like it forced me to stare hard enough to really see, over and over, like the light breaking through the shade of trees on a roadside.

My speedometer stayed at zero. Trees and gas stations, houses and schools, blurred past my periphery, but I wasn’t moving.

I thought of myself running on a treadmill for hours at a time during the first months of sobriety, sometimes deep in the night. I lifted my feet, one at a time, put them down in the same spot, but somehow made miles. I worked up a sweat without going anywhere.

The forests between Bangor and Lubec slid by my car, and a cobalt sky sang of spring above my crashing head. Ninety miles went under my tires. I kept the cup of cola in my hand, now reduced to cool, brown water. I liked the chill against my palm, the way it made my skin ache, the way the condensation made me feel slick. Staying between the margins, I kept the car pointed forward, let the pain killer work, and drove home. I imagined that this road was a treadmill, that I wasn’t moving ahead so much as the world was in motion, that the earth was the spinning belt. To make miles, I had to step off.


Penny Guisinger

Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, Exit 7, and About Place Journal. Her essay “Coming Out” was a finalist in the 2013 Michael Steinberg Essay Contest, and one called “Provincetown” was awarded an editor’s choice award from Solstice. Her work is appearing in two forthcoming anthologies, due out in 2015. She is the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose.

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28 Comments on “Route Nine, Bangor to Lubec

  1. Ms Guisinger in her narcissistic navel gazing, shows absolutely no interest or concern about how she might damage or end the lives of others in her drugged, drunken and hungover car journeys.

    Not only that, she is unconcerned that her car has deficient brakes and no speedometer.

    Ms Guisinger should be jailed for her criminal ego, stuck in adolescence, if for nothing else.

  2. Really, John? I think you’ve missed the point.
    First…cars didn’t have anti-lock brakes before the 1980’s…so driving without them was done for years without endangering anyone. The mechanic wouldn’t have let her drive if it was completely unsafe or illegal. Speedometers weren’t standard on the first automobiles, either…and if you’ve ever driven Route 9, you know that going too fast isn’t a comfortable sensation.
    Second…I think that you’ve missed the fact that this is in PAST tense. That, in fact, this is no longer an event that occurs. Maybe you didn’t read the last line about stepping off? Or maybe you were too eager to get your quick wit out there for the rest of us to read?
    Third…you’ve missed an excellent piece of writing.
    Do yourself a favor…read it again without the bias.

  3. Thanks Julia, but I got the point only too well.

    Her brakes were faulty, her speedo was faulty and her judgement was faulty because of drink or drugs. I’m sorry you don’t mention this at all. Your point about the past tense is somewhat evasive, except that she might have put someone’s life into the past tense. Passing the buck to the mechanic is worrying, as is your indifference to other people’s lives. A drunk driving a clunker is not good, however well written is her account.

    Yes it was interestingly written, but her glorification of irresponsibility smothers any liking for the article. I wasn’t aware of any”quick wit” in my comment, Julia – care to say where you found that?

    Try reading the article again with a clear mind. There is a practice in literary criticism called ”Close Reading”. I’m sure you’d benefit greatly from it.

    Thanks for your thoughts…

  4. Some people bravely and unsparingly write from the guts of life about their mistakes and fallible humanity, and others smugly troll lit mag comments’ sections from their glass houses.

  5. As an addictions specialist for a quarter century, I only wish more addicts were able to reflect from their sober selves with such clarity and unflinching honesty. What I get from Guisinger’s essay is a deep deep sadness, reflective of all the possibilities that John is alluding to. No, no loud mea culpas, but nuanced grief. That’s what makes it a personal essay. And very beautiful.

  6. Some people write beautiful essays that examine their own human fallibility with unflinching candor, and others shame women on the internet from their glass houses. Thanks, Penny, for being brave enough to write this, and for doing it beautifully.

  7. I like all the comments except John’s. Talk about being stuck in adolescence. I especially admire Alexis’ comment. I have issues, but not addiction issues, for which I am grateful. I don’t feel the need to lash out at someone who writes so truthfully from her gut.

  8. Lovely piece, Penny! I admire its combination of honesty, restraint, and subtlety and will share it widely with friends who have been on similar roads.

  9. Exquisite, nuanced writing about difficult, painful subjects. Thank you, Penny, for your courage and your writing. (I’m always skeptical of trolling “critics” who are unwilling to identify themselves when savaging other people and their work.)

  10. Thank you Alexis.

    I”m sorry you imagine that criticism of a woman’s writing is perceived by you as an attack on women. By that bizarre logic your comment to me is an attack on men.

    Because you don’t agree with me, you allege that my comment is a trolling comment, yet you carefully avoid refuting it. Your ad hominem attack is in itself an abdication of discussion. I have noticed online that there is an increasing tendency for some people to fear clarity and debate and try to shut down discussion with abuse.

    Alexis, disagreement can be productive, but you may be a stranger to that thought.

    I have said that the article is well written and that its content is deplorable. I do hope you are not saying that fine writing sanitises questionable content. I think that DH Lawrence is a fine writer, but some of his themes and content are unacceptable, as is his attitude to women. Don’t you think? It is an interesting question, good writing against bad content. How do you deal with it? In your case you seem to prefer style over substance.

    Best wishes


  11. Really tender stuff from this writer. My first great creative writing teacher said something important to our class of novices (who were miffed about “always having to read dark stuff”). If people only wrote the best of themselves or the world, we’d be bored to death and we’d give up the enterprise. I appreciate a writer who lays bare her difficulties.

    Also, perhaps from reading too much partisan internet drivel, many readers have come to believe that they must form a moral opinion about everything they lay eyes on. Save that mess for church.

  12. Thank heavens we have people like John in the world to set us straight. I, for one, am grateful for his keen insights into the human condition.

    All this while I thought that the purpose of literature was empathy, to see on the page the struggles and triumphs of other people’s lives and to imagine myself in their shoes, to expand my thinking and my heart to embrace what is true for another human being, to applaud writers who have the courage to unflinchingly speak the truth about themselves.

    But I repent of my faulty ways. I see now that the true reason for reading literature is to judge, and condemn, and call names — anonymously, on the Internet — in order to salve my own feelings of inadequacy and convince my humorless self of my innate superiority.

    I probably should be jailed. Perhaps Penny and I can share a cell.

  13. John, you make an unnecessary distinction between the quality of the prose and the content. When the two are fused, you find a finely drawn record of human actualization – the purpose of art. Congrats on your morals though. We can all see that you have them. Did you like a small token? Consider this a cyber five as unnecessarily condescending as all your previous posts.

    More to the point: well done, Penny. This is a well struck metaphor. You should be proud. I know I am.

  14. That one person’s truth becomes another person’s “bad content” exemplifies the difficult risk writers of creative nonfiction take when telling their hard stories. Penny, your essay is heartwrenchingly honest. It’s beautifully written. Those of us who are human, who understand that life is full of “bad content” if examined honestly, and who recognize the deep vulnerability that this kind of exposure entails, applaud you for your courage and your artistry.

  15. That one person’s truth becomes another person’s “bad content” exemplifies the difficult risk writers of creative nonfiction take by telling their hard stories. Penny, your essay is heartwrenchingly honest. It’s beautifully written. Those of us who are human, who understand that life, when examined honestly, contains both “good” and. “bad” content and recognize the deep vulnerability of exposing that content to others, applaud your courage and artistry.

  16. This is a lovely, haunting essay. I don’t quite understand the guy maligning the author– I think the criticism is that she was driving a car she was told she could safely drive while not actually drunk?– but I think he needs to 1) get over himself and 2) learn to read.

    Excellent work, Ms. Guisinger. I’m not an addict myself, but your essay puts the reader in the uncomfortable place of seeing the world from an addict’s point-of-view. I suspect that’s actually what has your troll so hysterical.

  17. I am saddened by the mob-style vitriol against my reasoned and objective comment. If someone were to object to my post using reason rather than venom I would be interested.

    I made a comment on the article based on reason and logic. The opposition to my comments was based on irrationality and illogic; in other words, all based on emotion and prejudice, I’m sorry to say. And tragically it seems, mostly from women.

    I would be pleased if those who disagree with me were to object to my valid points using reason rather than bile. Would they be so praising of the writer’s undoubtedly great writing if they had lost a loved one to such a hideous drunk driving such a clunker?

    The author, writing exceedingly well, praises the merits of driving a dangerous banger under the influence of drink and drugs. I hesitantly question if those who laud her excellent writing would be so praising if their son/daughter/husband/wife has been killed by this self-serving drunk/addict driving an unsafe car. Who writes beautifully incidenta33y.

    What I am saying is – do you think that fine writing effaces disgusting issues?

    Can anyone here rise above the personal and deal with real, important issues involving writing, so dear to all of us? Does fine writing excuse vicious anti social issues?

  18. John,

    You are clearly writing from a place of pain, anger, or both, so I’m going to try to be kind in my answering of you. There is a tradition in memoir of the recovery memoir, and it includes an exploration of the moment(s) in which an addict recognize that her own behavior is out of control and must change. This essay is of that tradition. The author didn’t injure anyone else, and so she has no obligation to imagine that outcome in this essay. She is not aggrandizing or excusing her behavior; in fact, she is writing about her coming to awareness of the need to stop the behavior and acknowledging, in the end, “To make miles, I had to step off.” I’m willing to say that your argument would indeed be valid if this were an essay which (though this is hard to imagine) recommended drunken or hungover driving to the reader, but this essay doesn’t do that. In fact, it gives the reader credit for understanding that the moment leads to understanding particularly because it’s such an awful, awful moment. I’m afraid a close reading just doesn’t support your assertions that this is narcissistic or adolescent. It is, in fact, a very mature reflection. I’m sorry that, for whatever reason, your pain, anger, or both keep you from seeing its grace. Peace.

  19. Thank you Sarah; no need for the amateur psychology as it’s way off the mark.You could though, apply it to those making ad hominem comments here. Nor do you need to struggle ‘to ”try to be kind”!

    As with all of the commenters, you are comfortable with an aggressive individualism which has no interest in society, in others. There is only a focus on the writer’s situation – which is why I spoke of narcissism. Driving dangerously is what teenagers do, having no thought for others. You say that’s OK, as the writer didn’t hit anyone. Quite an astonishing statement. If your loved one was killed by such a driver, would you say ”It’s OK, as she writes so well about it”?

    You say the writer recognises that her behaviour is out of control. Any evidence from the article for your view ? – especially as the writer has admitted she has been like this for years with no change evident. Close reading would be helpful here to enable you and others to avoid inserting conclusions with no evidence.

    As with the other comments, there is a failure to address the issue of good writing justifying poor content which I suggest is central to the issue. The commenters here all support drink/drugs dangerous driving- if you write well about it. All evade the issue of whether good writing excuses antisocial content or not.

    Perhaps the problem lies in the context of US society, exemplified in its gun laws, where the individual can alsotriumph over the wellbeing of society. I reject that, remembering John Donne’s ”no man is an island”……..

    Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence, Roy Campbell, Hemingway and others have written well yet had distasteful views. Yet I won’t continue to read a fascist apologist like Pound because his views are repellent. There’s my ‘morality’ ….

    Again, here’s the clear and simple (unanswered )challenge – does good writing justify poor content? Does style trump content?

    Best wishes


  20. Sarah’s response is so thoughtful and eloquent, it should probably be the last word. But I’m going to add a bit more anyway, because I apparently don’t know when to stop.

    First of all, the sexism in John’s most recent response– which basically argues that the women in this discussion are driven by emotion rather than logic and reason– is tremendously galling. John, you were the one who responded to this essay emotionally, with ad hominem attacks directed at a writer whose only crime is being vulnerable on the page. At no point in your initial response did you employ logic or reason– you misunderstood a work of art and tried to use that misunderstanding to attack a woman online.

    I think it is also important to note that the only thing she drinks in this essay’s narrative present is a Diet Coke. Diet Coke does not contain alcohol unless you add alcohol to it. Based on what is written here, there is no reason to believe the author has done that. We know that she had been drinking the night before, but that hours have passed and she is now sober, but suffering a headache. The only drug she refers to in the essay is Tylenol. Tylenol– a legal, over-the-counter medication– does not impair driving ability. Come to think of it, her choice of Tylenol– which should not be mixed with alcohol– is also a good indication that she is no longer drunk on anything other than regret.

    Is driving with a hangover dangerous? Perhaps. But so too is driving while sad, or driving while angry, or driving while on the phone, or– as Sarah Palin recently demonstrated– driving while listening to Sammy Hagar. Maybe we should just ban cars altogether?

    John, you claim in your later comments that you liked the writing in this piece, but found the content troubling. But your own words betray you. You were flat-out vicious in your condemnation of this author initially, accusing her of narcissism and charging her with navel-gazing. You also consistently refer to this essay as an article. You seem to have no respect for art, nor for artists. At least not art or artists that deal in nonfiction forms.

    Finally– and this is most important– you ask those of us who have supported Ms. Guisinger if we would be similarly empathetic had we lost someone in an accident where alcohol and drugs were involved. This is impossible for me to answer, because I have not been in that situation– and if you have been, then my heart goes out to you and I wish you well as you deal with your grief. But would I be able to see the humanity of someone struggling with an illness like addiction if I lost someone in an accident? I don’t know, but God knows I hope I would. Grief and loss can transform a person profoundly, but I hope if I ever experience such a thing, it doesn’t turn me solipsistic. Ms. Guisinger has written a smart and evocative portrayal of how it feels to suffer in a unique and profound way. I hope I’m never so deadened by my own suffering that I fail to understand and appreciate how important such a portrayal is.

  21. Bradley, you are right – you ”dont know when to stop”, for your musings on my comments border on the fantastic. I’m relaxed about that , but then you invoke Sarah Palin as a source of wisdom….ouch!

    I will not rehearse the comments I made – they stand clear, true and unanswered. But you even complain about the use of the word ”article”, (mea maxima culpa) extrapolating this smokescreen by imagining it proves I have no respect for art and artists,such is your feeling against the facts and truth I present. Forget Palin, and think of Keats saying ”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”.

    And because most commenters here are women (are they not?), I am ”sexist”!
    Bradley, Bradley, what has happened to you to bring you to this point in life?

    Bradley, it is not good for you to sanitise dangerous behaviour; you might care to look at the photo with which Guernica heads the article, if text is problematic. You evade the question on good art v poor content, as I expected. It’s a tough one isn’t it? No -one else will address it either so, Salem style, you are in good company..

    I thank you and all my other friends here for at least partly engaging in a discussion. And I appreciate you burning the midnight oil over your response; I do hope you will find a sea change in perception one day. Bradley, Keats again comes to mind when I consider your comments-

    For ever panting, and for ever young;
    All breathing human passion far above,
    That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

    Travel safely


  22. Ah, but the problem is I disagree with your very premise that the content of this essay is “poor.” A fan of logic such as yourself can most certainly see that this is a question-begging fallacy. To engage with your argument, I must first agree with your premise that writing that makes me feel uncomfortable is by definition “poor.” I don’t agree with that. I have read all sorts of nonfiction about binge drinking, drug abuse, adultery, violence, etc. I’ve enjoyed some of it; I have not enjoyed others. In general, I find it distasteful when an author writes about his or her bad behavior in a boastful way (James Frey’s “I’m a bad man” routine got old very early on in A Million Little Pieces, for example). But when Cheryl Strayed writes about cheating on her husband, or Frank Conroy ends Stop-Time with a description of his own recklessness, or Penny Guisinger constructs an elaborate metaphor about her life being out of control from of the experience of driving without a speedometer while guzzling Tylenol to kill a headache– well, in that case, the material not “poor.” It’s captivating, and it has something to teach me about how other people live.

    That’s the real value of essays like this one, by the way– you dismiss this essay with charges of “navel-gazing” and “narcissism.” But the real solipsism is found in the reader who refuses to engage with the essayist and what she has to say, preferring the role of scold to the role of active reader. And I’m afraid no references to Pound or citations from Keats will make up for the fact that yours is an argument that his fundamentally at odds with artistic expression.

    Martin Luther advised his followers to “sin boldly,” and I think that is advice every essayist needs to follow. That’s not to say that we should indulge in reckless or “bad” behavior with abandon, but rather we need to acknowledge our own weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes. We need to ‘fess up about who we really are, and not pretend to be any less “sinful” (or, for a secular audience, imperfect) that we all really are.

    Smaller matters:

    The image the editors chose to run with the essay is not part of the essay itself, as far as I can tell. It has no bearing on this discussion, which is of Ms. Guisinger’s essay. A discussion about whether this was a good editorial call is a completely different conversation altogether– a red herring fallacy, to employ the language of logic.

    At no point did I call you “sexist.” I said your comments were sexist. I don’t know you at all and can’t judge how you live your life. But your response to those who disagreed with you was to dismiss them as irrational women– a ploy that has been used to silence female dissent for quite a long time. It could be that the sexist nature of your comment was unintentional, and that you are a committed feminist who accidentally employed a sexist rhetorical strategy. We all have moment of unintentional insensitivity. But what you wrote was indeed sexist.

    I evoked Sarah Palin as an attempt at levity, to lighten things up a bit because, frankly, you seemed to be getting upset and I though a reference to a silly recent event might allow us all to take a deep breath and chill out a little.

    As far as my life goes… Well, I’m not sure that’s really any of your business, but if you must know I’m a very happy man who loves his friends and family. I’ve taken up running. I like to read. I appreciate an occasional glass of wine with my wife. I am uncommonly handsome. And modest. What brought me to this point? Intelligence and charm, mostly. Some hard work, too. It’s a good life. I have some frustrations, but they don’t lead me to attack works of art or artists themselves. And I haven’t been accused of chauvinism since my sophomore year of college. So I got that goin’ for me.

  23. Maija Rothenberg confidently yet unwisely writes of ‘the human condition.” She also wishes to give me a right old kicking! Which is fine as we are in a virtual seminar, I hope. Exchanging ideas and so on.

    Maria, I have heard this elastic and undefined phrase for decades. Can you please tell me what is ”the human condition”? But be careful dear friend, for I will question you on it. I don’t think you will respond, and very wisely too. I wouldn’t respond either on such an empty phrase, a cliché, so bereft of meaning!

    You also say ”the purpose of literature was empathy”. Maria! I have never heard this before! Can you expand on this? Probably not. If this is an example of what is taught in US universities, may I say it hasn’t leaked into US foreign policy from Vietnam onwards? But give it time..

    As I dont expect to hear from you, I extend my best wishes and would love to be in seminar with you and others here. I would certainly genuinely learn.


  24. ”Bradley says ”Ah, but the problem is I disagree with your very premise that the content of this essay is “poor.” A fan of logic such as yourself can most certainly see that this is a question-begging fallacy. To engage with your argument, I must first agree with your premise that writing that makes me feel uncomfortable is by definition “poor.”

    Bradley, I did say earlier that I hoped people might discuss the general topic of style over substance. But (sigh) you wilfully misunderstand – again. You don’t have to agree with my points about this essay – that’s just fine – forget this essay and address the wider question.

    ” To engage with your argument, I must first agree with your premise that writing that makes me feel uncomfortable is by definition “poor.” ” No Bradley, I didnt say that- you made that up. Were you never told at college that this is dishonest? In a decent college, that gets you a fail.

    ”As far as my life goes… Well, I’m not sure that’s really any of your business”. Relax Brad, no-one’s forcing you. Just don’t answer rhetorical questions. Tsk!

    ”frankly, you seemed to be getting upset” Sorry Brad – I think this is a bit of projection of your own tiredness, emotion and the frustrations you say you have. I’m fine!

    PS. Can you tell us Brad, what is the ”human condition”?

    Best wishes

  25. If one were to make a purely aesthetic argument here, the one guilty of bad writing is John. Melodrama, conflation (US foreign policy is a creative leap; is John giving us a lesson in the surreal?), navel gazing by way of paranoia, overuse of Latin protestations, sophomoric modifiers, haughty references, faux politeness, genre misidentification…

  26. Thanks Alexis!

    ”Bad writing”? I don’t claim to be a writer and certainly not one of the quality of P. Guisinger – so that’s rather a wild shot! …purely aesthetically of course.

    Paranoia? I’ll add that to the collection of the other penetrating analyses made of me here.

    Your other ad hominem comments are certainly interesting. ”Faux politeness” is my favourite, given the tone of many of the comments made against mine! ”Latin protestations?” – you mean stuff like ”a right old kicking… It’s a tough one …Does style trump content? , ” and so on. Latinate? – nah, more plain old everyday English. At a quick glance, I count around a quarter of your words here to be Latinate. Quite a lot, eh? I fully agree with you that my inclusion of US foreign policy was a step too far…mea culpa..

    But I really must leave you to have a go at me without my further involvement. I’ve made my point. Sadly, the majority of commenters focus on having a go at me rather than on my comments or better, the essay itself.

    I’m pleased that some took the time to engage if not discuss. There are many fine essays and articles in Guernica which attract no comment at all. I urge you to contribute there. Look at Noam Chomsky’s, John Berger’s or Norman Finkelstein’s. There are so many…

    Thanks for your words


  27. In my experiences with addiction, the dopamine deficit we are seeking to fill (alcohol, sex, coffee, etc.) supersedes survival instinct, concern for personal safety and the safety of others. In her right mind, or under healthy circumstances, I imagine the author would see the danger–both to herself and others–in taking a faulty car 90 miles on the third morning of an intense relapse. Or chewing up a handful of Tylenol and putting all that acetaminophen through a fatigued liver. Or having another drink later the same day.

    Who knows?

    This, to me, is the drive of this essay. It draws attention to the long list of things that cannot and will not stand in the way of the author’s (or the addict’s) need to satisfy some deep-down chemical craving, whatever the cost.

    It takes courage to tell the world that you are in that place.

    To that I say Bravo and best wishes to the author and anyone else facing alcohol’s cunning.


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