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Donald Newlove, 93, Dies; Novelist Explored the Depths of Drink

Donald Newlove, a recovered alcoholic who wrote acclaimed, brutally unsentimental novels and a memoir with a common theme — drunkenness — as well …

Donald Newlove, a recovered alcoholic who wrote acclaimed, brutally unsentimental novels and a memoir with a common theme — drunkenness — as well as cheeky primers on reading and writing, died on Aug. 17 in Bethesda, Md. He was 93.

The cause was complications of a broken hip, said Lisa Brannock, his stepdaughter and closest survivor.

Mr. Newlove’s novels — among them “The Painter Gabriel” (1970), “The Drunks” (1974) and “Sweet Adversity” (1978) — were met with critical praise. Time magazine described “The Painter Gabriel,” his first, as “one of the best fictional studies of madness, descent, and purification that any American has written since Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’”

The novelist Frederick Busch wrote in The New York Times Book Review that “The Drunks” was “a convulsion of ghastly laughs and gorgeous writing.” The New Yorker hailed “Sweet Adversity,” about conjoined twin jazz musicians who are alcoholics, as “probably the most cleareyed and moving — and certainly one of the most honest — books ever written about alcoholics.” (The novel incorporated material from “The Drunks” and a previous novel, “Leo & Theodore,” published in 1972.)

Equally praised was “The Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers,” a 1981 book that is part memoir, part discussion of alcohol’s influence on the writing life.

Despite all the acclaim, however, many of Mr. Newlove’s books fell out of print. It has only been in the last several years that a number of them have been republished, by Tough Poets Press.

“I was not driven by the interests of agents or publishers,” he told the literary journal The Collidescope this year. He allowed that his nonfiction works “were created with an audience in mind,” but he added, “I always wrote for myself and thought that whatever I was writing at the time was publishable.”

He wrote three books on writing, including “First Paragraphs: Inspired Openings for Writers and Readers” (1992), in which he declared that his favorite opening comes in Dickens’s “Bleak House,” with its appropriately bleak description of a foggy, muddy November day in soot-smothered 19th-century London. But he pencil-edited the start of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

“I think,” Mr. Newlove wrote of the translation, “the last sentence in this otherwise entrancing retonguing from the Spanish should read ‘they found inside a calcified skeleton and around its neck a copper locket containing a woman’s hair.’ I doubt that the original says ‘a copper locket containing a woman’s hair around its neck.’”

Asked by The Collidescope to compose the opening to a never-to-be-finished novel, he ad-libbed: “Here is your sentence: ‘Who knows what heartbreak the wind will bring?’”

He had advice for writers in “First Paragraphs.” “Let me give you Dr. Don’s Rule for Distinguished Writing,” he wrote. “It’s in the voice. You get a call from a friend, you know right away who it is. One paragraph, you know the voice.”

“That the greatest writing is made out of loneliness and despair magnified by booze is an idea for arrested adolescents,” Mr. Newlove wrote in this 1981 book. 

Donald Alford Newlove was born on March 28, 1928, in Erie, Pa., to Samuel and Marvel (Carris) Newlove. His father, a sheet metal worker, died of “tuberculosis, diabetes and alcohol,” his son wrote. Donald grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., and was raised by stepfathers.

After failing the ninth grade, he dropped out of school and enlisted in the Marines just after World War II. He went on to earn a high school equivalency diploma. When he was recalled for service in Korea, he joined the Air Force instead and edited a base newsletter. He was later a reporter for The Jamestown Sun and an ambulance driver in Florida.

His marriages to Norma Jean Sandberg and Jaqueline Rayfeld ended in divorce. He was married for 39 years to Nancy Semonian, who died in 2017.

Publishers early on were not interested in his novels, to the point that Mr. Newlove took out full page ads in The Village Voice to pitch them to publishers. He got a break in 1969, when Esquire printed his account of a Christmas dinner he had attended at the home of the poet Robert Lowell. He wrote dozens of articles for New York magazine, The Evergreen Review and The Saturday Review.

Mr. Newlove joined Alcoholics Anonymous when he was 34, and it took him five years to get sober. He concluded that liquor is rarely an elixir for writer’s block.

Recalling Jack Kerouac’s career in “The Drinking Days,” he wrote, “That the greatest writing is made out of loneliness and despair magnified by booze is an idea for arrested adolescents.”

He likened his awakening one day from a bender to having “a Zulu spear through my brain and eyes like carpets the wine has dried in.” As an alcoholic, he characterized his besotted muse as “Drunkspeare.”

During bouts of inebriation, he recalled, he was arrested for assaulting his mother (she bailed him out of jail) and was involved in a serious auto accident in which he was the driver.

“I wrote richly dumb books as a drinker; they are all in my trunk unpublished,” he told The Collidescope. “I do not subscribe to the idea that drinking makes your writing better. However, it is true that some famous writers drank and still managed to write well.

“Can it lend you uninhibited creativity?” he asked, to which he replied: “Some creativity should be inhibited.”

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