Richard Bader On Recovery

Richard Bader

One reason I like seeing my work in the r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal is that it looks so good here, artfully placed and presented and accompanied by actual art. Another is that I feel so at home. I seem to be unable to write a story without “recovery” playing a starring role. Recently I’ve written stories featuring frogs, parakeets, bowling, a woman on death row, and, in this latest issue of r.kv.r.y., people on a bathroom break, and recovery themes are everywhere. Recovery has been a major force in my life, so this makes sense.

But just how deeply embedded in fiction is the idea of recovery? Or to put it a different way, if you take away all fiction containing the theme of recovery, isn’t the body of work you’re left with deeply and sadly diminished?

“Recovery,” my online dictionary says, is “a return to a normal state of health, or mind, or strength.” The struggle for that “return to normal” has an impressive track record of making fiction compelling that extends at least as far back as Homer. Beautiful woman is abducted from her homeland. Homeland seeks to “recover” her. Beautiful woman’s face launches a thousand ships. Armies collide. People die horrible deaths. Heroes are made.

The Iliad.

In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” poor insectified Gregor Samsa may fail in his effort to “return to a normal state of health,” but his struggle in that direction is heartbreakingly present. And his eventual demise signals a “return to normal” for his family, for which they’re grateful. They recover from him.

In what’s arguably the most studied short story ever written, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” Robert, the narrator’s wife’s visiting friend—a friend who earlier has helped the wife recover after an attempted suicide—may be physically blind, but he’s the one who guides the narrator past his own narrow-minded blindness about life toward new insight and awareness, and in doing so brings them both (aided by alcohol and pot) to a state of grace. “Recovery,” in other words. Or, if not precisely recovery, since it’s debatable whether the narrator ever had the qualities he gains at the end, at the very least a sort of uncovery.

The driving force in Moby-Dick is recovery’s darker cousin: revenge. Ahab can’t recover the leg he’s lost, but he can try to get even with the creature that took it from him, and it’s his lust for revenge that drives the plot. Score settling becomes its own kind of recovery.

Or, to move away from fiction studied in college classrooms and toward the fiction of best-seller lists, take Stephen King’s The Shining. Jack drags his family to a mountain hotel where he’s been hired as caretaker for the winter, seeking recovery from both his alcoholism and his flagging writing career. And OK, things don’t work out so well for Jack, but the theme is there, in Jack and in his wife and young son, who struggle toward what stands for “normal” in a Stephen King novel.

Just how prevalent is recovery in fiction? “Normal” makes for lousy fiction, so it makes sense that upsetting the normal, and struggling to return to it, would be common. But is recovery in most fiction? Is it possible to find it in all fiction, if you dig hard enough? Or is recovery simply one of those things that once you start thinking about it, you see it everywhere, like Ford trucks when you’re considering buying one?

All of this points to another reason I like being published in r.kv.r.y.—it puts me in such good company. And maybe that’s the neat trick of this publication. While appearing to narrow, it in fact opens up whole vast worlds of the fictional universe.


Richard Bader‘s fiction has been (or is about to be) published by the Burningword Literary Journal, SN Review, and National Public Radio. This is his second story for r.kv.ry. He lives and writes in Towson, Maryland.