To Spend Time With Fools

five novels for your inner drunk

Writers are often stereotyped as stumbling drunks. This might be due to their penchant for drinking until they stumble around. They are, as a class, not as desperately alcoholic as they seem, partly because there is a sort of romantic allure to being a drunk that a writer will seek to attain even if his indulgence takes the form of half a bottle of a cheap domestic just before bedtime; if he rises the next day, goes to a party, and claims to be destroyed by his habits, who’s to gainsay him? One of the benefits to a solitary profession, that.

Indeed, there’s something sneaky, if not deceptive, about being a drunk. While visual artists prefer the rigorous self-lack-of-control that allows for total batshit insanity as their mind-altering vice of choice, and musicians, with their penchant for flamboyant public display, go in for exotic drugs, the writer - who is, in the artistic as well as literal sense, a compulsive masturbator - chooses a safe escape. Liquor, after all, is perfectly legal and perfectly acceptable, even respectable. It doesn’t have the social taboo of derangement or the legal restrictions of a trendy cocaine habit, and best of all for the busy scribbler, it’s easy; all you have to do is walk to the nearest Trader Joe’s with ten bucks in your hand, and by the end of the day, you’re a wino. Capping off its allure, alcoholism has a certain eternal quality, which grants it a universal resonance difficult to achieve for the hebephrenic or the Oxycontin enthusiast.

So while the art world will occasionally cough up a noteworthy boozehound like Jackson Pollack or Toulouse-Latrec, they are jazzy, showy happy-hour exceptions rather than everyday $2 PBR-in-a-can rules. Rock ’n’ roll will continue to present us the image of a nimble-fingered German passed out behind a toilet in which floats an empty bottle of Jack Daniels, but in the music world, liquor will likely remain a sporadic divertissement to the drugs which will take our future idols’ lives. It is the realm of the writer to which booze is the national sacrament, extending even to peripheral fields of endeavor like journalism (whose practitioners are best thought of as the alcoholic Army to the novelist’s alcoholic Marine Corps) and poetry (the alcoholic Navy Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific). It is the writer who hits the sauce the hardest, the deepest, and the truest, and it is the writer who then goes on to tell everybody about it so they can appreciate all the more the great sacrifices he makes for his craft.

Still, not all writing about booze is equal, just as the gin you buy at the drugstore and keep under the sink next to the drain cleaner is not the same as the kind that the guy at the liquor store has to get for you from a locked cabinet next to the wine that was commissioned for the Sun King. Too much alcoholic writing is meant to show off what a delightfully wonderful person the writer is (as is the case with, say, Henry Miller), or what a delightfully horrible person the writer is (as is the case with, say, Charles Bukowski). For Ernest Hemingway, alcohol was merely a prop, like a rifle or a Spaniard or a mangled penis, though it was he who gave this article its title. Like George Jean Nathan, who drank to make other people interesting, Papa said booze was necessary to spend time with fools - living on the edge was his kick, either through big-game hunting, fighting pointless wars, or succumbing to dementia. Sebastian Flyte and Bertie Wooster have the taint of the aristocracy about them, a world in which alcoholism is as harmless and whimsical as butterfly collecting or incest. Modern writers like David Foster Wallace watch too much TV and take too many gray-market pharmaceuticals to make characters like Infinite Jest’s James O. Incandenza truly memorable. And Dorothy Parker is a girl. Girls don’t count.

No, to truly appreciate the drunk in fiction, we must largely stay with the modernists, who had not yet succumbed to the cheap thrills of postmodernism and the accompanying taste for kitchen sink crank; and, for the most part, we must stay with the English, William Booth’s “population sodden with drink” who, even though the flashier Irish get all the credit, are generally responsible for every refinement of civilized boozehoundery. Li Po and Rumi may have loved their wine, but they didn’t build their entire civilization around it. Great Britain’s naval power floated on a sea of rum, their colonial holdings were watered with gin, and their working classes were fueled with beer and whiskey. “How much of our literature,” surmised literary critic John Wain, “our political life, our friendships and love affairs, depend on being able to talk peacefully in a bar!” It was an English poet, Dean Aldrich, who spelled out the five reasons to drink (“good wine, a friend, or being dry, or lest we should be by and my, or any other reason why”), and it was England who produced Kingsley Amis, the poet laureate of alcoholism (working as an ad copywriter, he once suggested for a client the slogan “Bowen’s Beer Makes You Drunk”), who wrote, in Lucky Jim, the most pure and perfect description of a hangover ever crafted:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

Herewith, five novels that memorably portray the art, science, sport and religion of drinking. I am sure I delete your favorites; I am sure I don’t care. These are simply a few tasty shots from a large and well-stocked bar containing intoxicating descriptions of not only drunks, but the far more important and meaningful subject of being drunk. Read them all with a bottle of your poison of choice to hand; we’ll still be here when you return from getting your stomach pumped.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

O’Hara wasn’t English - he was American by way of Ireland, and a resentful social climber whose entire life was colored by not having enough money to get into Yale, where his penchant for drinking would have been dismissed as frat-boy hijacks. But he was wise enough to give the doomed hero of his greatest novel the giveaway name of Julian English. A transparent stand-in for O’Hara himself, for whom binge drinking was research, Julian English pisses his life away for no better reason than it makes for good drama, never letting his paralyzing fear of losing his wife to another man get in the way of hitting on every attractive woman who floats into his booze-blurred field of vision. Like Amis, who likewise wrote from experience, O’Hara mastered the art of describing the hangover; an early passage, poetic in style but painful in verisimilitude, makes English’s morning-after sound miserable enough to make his inevitable suicide seem like a lucky break. The fatal drink he throws into the face of Harry Reilly is probably the only one in the book that doesn’t go down his throat. And the waking coma into which he drinks himself prior to taking his last big ride is particularly poignant when you consider that it takes place on the day after Christmas, which sees more than its share of alcohol abuse. Maybe Julian didn’t get what he wanted. No doubt the trouble was he wanted something complicated (a fulfilling sexual relationship with a working-class Polish girl) instead of something simple (a tie rack). John O’Hara didn’t get off as lucky as Julian English; he stuck around a good 30 years longer than his most famous character, and had the further misfortune of writing his own tombstone, which forever cemented his reputation as kind of a pompous jackass. He should have drunk more.

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

Brian O’Nolan had enough pseudonyms to qualify for membership in the Wu-Tang Clan had he been a rapper from Staten Island instead of an overeducated drunk from County Tyrone. As Myles na Gopaleen, he wrote the jaw-droppingly brilliant and hilarious “Cruiskeen Lawn” column for the Irish Times (in one installment of the “Bores” feature of “Cruiskeen Lawn,” O’Nolan hilariously describes the hopeless drunk, crying tears of pure gin, who blames all his troubles on cigarette smoking); as Flann O’Brien, he wrote a number of terrific novels that earned him a reputation as sort of the strange man’s James Joyce. Incredibly funny, bewilderingly metafictional and dizzyingly self-referential, At Swim-Two-Birds is a masterpiece, and on top of its other qualities, it’s an essential portrait of the dissipated slacker college student. The unnamed narrator spends his days engaging in flights of literary fancy and swindling his brutish, resentful uncle out of money he claims is for books but which he actually spends at the races; he spends his nights doing what pretty much everyone else in Ireland does. Early on, we are treated to this bit of dialogue between the narrator and one of his equally shiftless schoolmates, which nicely encapsulates the delicious blend of the heady, the hilarious and the earthy that characterizes much of O’Brien’s fiction:

He leaned over and put his face close to me in an earnest manner. Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.

Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I became subsequently addicted to brown stout in a bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.

I proceeded home after leaving a gallon of half-digested porter on the floor of the public-house in Parnell street and put myself with considerable difficulty into bed, where I remained for three days on the pretence of a chill. I was compelled to secret my suit beneath the mattress because it was offensive to at least two of the senses and bore an explanation of my illness contrary to that already advanced.

O’Brien’s books share with Amis’ a woozily hilarious interpretation of drinking one’s self blind, conjoined with Joyce’s sense of intellectual play. At Swim-Two-Birds will take the reader in more unexpected directions than any of the books listed here, but it’ll make sure she has a drink in her hand at all times.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the finest novelists who ever lived, Dostoevsky tended to have a somewhat jaundiced view of human psychology. Being seconds away from death by firing squad will do that for a person. Crime and Punishment is stuffed to the gills with scintillating insights into the character of mankind, but lost among such timeless depictions as the self-deluding Raskolnikov, the sadistic Svidrigailov and the implacable Petrovich is Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov. Drunken, dissipated, indebted and desperate, Marmeladov - father to Sonya - provides an intriguing foil to Raskolnikov early in the book. Self-pitying in a way that offends even the solipsistic student, Marmeladov’s confession that he cannot aid his family while he sits drowned in drink seems to viscerally repulse Raskolnikov - but the man’s death later provokes a near-redemptive act of charity on Raskolnikov’s part. Marmeladov’s self-abasing, pitiful, helpless monologue is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s spent time around drunks, and even his initial description is echoed in Anybar, U.S.A. 140 years later:

His face, bloated from continual drinking, was of a yellow, even greenish tinge, with swollen eyelids, out of which keen, reddish eyes gleamed like little chinks. But there was something very strange in him; there was a light in his eyes as though of intense feeling - perhaps there were even thought and intelligence, but at the same time there was a gleam of something like madness. He was wearing an old and hopelessly ragged black dress coat, with all its buttons missing except one, and that one he had buttoned, evidently clinging to his last trace of respectability.

In that one detail of a solitary button there is more of the tragic loss and vague hope of redemption that comes from life in the bottle than in hundreds of pages of Bukowski.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Why is it that so much of the great literature of alcoholism revolves around the hangover? For no other reason than having one means that you’ve survived to drink another day. Thus the title of Patrick Hamilton’s finest book, a drunk’s play on Hanover Square - and Hamilton was, no mistake, a drunk, not an alcoholic. (“An alcoholic,” Dylan Thomas - who knew a thing or two about the subject - reminds us, “is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.”) His father was a drunk, and his permanent disfigurement in a car crash in his mid-20s gave him little reason to avoid the same fate. Hamilton - who, until a recent revival in which his vicious streak of black humor and sometimes-astonishing gift for disturbing imagery was discovered by a new generation of critics, was best known for providing Alfred Hitchcock with the raw material for Rope - tells the story of the perfectly named George Harvey Bone, a schizophrenic good-for-nothing who drowns out the “dead moods” inside his skull by constant drinking. Bone doesn’t have a job; he has a career that largely consists of talking about all the things he could do if he wasn’t drunk. He doesn’t have friends; he has, like most alcoholics, a bunch of people he drinks with and who can’t stand him the minute they sober up. And he doesn’t have a girlfriend; he has an actress he’s obsessed with and who loathes him, and who will meet a grisly but unforgettable fate, burning up among Hamilton’s beloved London lowlifes in an eerie foreshadowing of the nightmarish days to come (Hangover Square was begun in 1939 and completed in 1941). The descriptions of Bone and his contemptible ’friends’ careering aimlessly from pub to pub are among the truest in all of drunk fiction.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Sure, Chandler was American - as American as rancid apple pie cooling on the windowsill of a house out in the Valley bought with a loanshark’s vig. But he was raised in England, and The Long Goodbye, a perfectly realized noir and the best of his Philip Marlowe novels, is infused with a very British understanding of the simple art of drinking. “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox,” the novel begins, “he was drunk.” He remains so throughout most of the first part of the book, before his abrupt and mysterious disappearance launches Marlowe into one of the most complex cases of his career. Like Chandler, Lennox is an American who has spent a lot of time in England (leading to a memorable scene where he takes Marlowe to the only bar in Los Angeles where they know how to make a gimlet exactly the right way); the detective describes him as “the politest drunk I ever met,” an assessment that will be sorely tested by later events. Marlowe himself is a drinker, but never lets it get in the way of business - though his own attitude towards booze, as well as that of the times, is tellingly revealed when he attempts to sober up Terry Lennox by taking him out for hamburgers and beers. But Lennox more than makes up for it, becoming the closest thing Marlowe ever gets to a real friend while testing that friendship with his seemingly helpless and directionless drinking. “Maybe I can quit drinking one of these days,” says Lennox with a tired smile; “they all say that, don’t they?” He also delivers one of Chandler’s most notoriously cynical bits of hardboiled dialogue in his final night out with Marlowe: “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”

Space considerations prevent me from giving this incredibly rich subject the attention it deserves. Given a book’s worth of time, I could spend dozens more pages discussing memorable characters such as the Whisky Priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; deep understanding such as is found in Stephen King’s The Shining, surprisingly one of the most solid portrayals in fiction of the effect of alcoholism on the family dynamic; noteworthy moments like the death by gin-saturated spontaneous human combustion of Krook in Dickens’ Bleak House; essential reading like the treatment of drinking in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the rowdy, Guinness-fueled pub crawls of Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan are contrasted with Leo Bloom’s genteel lunch of burgundy and a cheese sandwich at Davy Byrne’s; and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the Holy Scripture of drunk fiction, of which Stephen Spender writes “it is no more about drinking than King Lear is about senility,” but adds that “by the time we have finished, we know how a drunk thinks and feels, walks and lies down, and we experience not only the befuddledness of drinking but also its moments of translucent clairvoyance, perfected expression.” (Like Philip Marlowe giving Terry Lennox beer to sober him up, Under the Volcano’s Geoffrey Firmin has a “therapeutic drink” to stop the shakes.) But this and a fifth of something old enough to drive should get you on your way, and remember the words of the (British, of course) critic George Saintsbury, who really did write a book about drinking and literature: “It is the unbroken testimony of all history that alcoholic liquors have been used by the strongest, wisest, handsomest, and in every way best races of all times.” And if you can’t hear that being slurred out of the mouth of someone who’s been at the good vintage, you’re not drinking enough yourself.