Liquor and literature

Ian Crouch in The New Yorker considers Blake Bailey's recent biography Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Freams of Charles Jackson, as the book which will make you never want to drink again.

There is something to be said for reading in bars—not just in one of Hemingway’s ‘clean, well-lighted’ places, but in any old bustling spot with taps, bottles, a firm flat surface, and a seat.

At night, most coffee shops are closed, and readers looking to remain connected to the movements of the city and away from their addiction to HBO need somewhere to go. Furthermore, it’s an activity that gratifies one’s vanity: a book sets the reader apart as a contemplative figure, a person of some intelligence. It can occasionally be an invitation to conversation—‘Whatcha reading?’

 Reading is often more interesting than watching sports-news headlines scurry across a flatscreen, and is almost always more interesting than checking e-mail.

Perhaps we inefficient barroom readers are seduced by the romance born out of the link between liquor and literature. Certain bars trade on a literary sensibility, stacking musty books into shelves along the walls or hanging snippets of framed poetry behind the bar.

Some make claims to literary history: visitors to New York can go to Pete’s Tavern, where William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) is said to have sketched out The Gift of the Magi, or, more grimly, the White Horse Tavern, where myth holds that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. (He died of pneumonia, but whiskey hadn’t helped matters.)

How many Irish pubs in every corner of the world have hung a stern-looking portrait of James Joyce, or included Yeats’s name somewhere on the menu?

Certain bars operate under the banner of patron saints. There are Joyce pubs in Baltimore, Santa Barbara, and near Tampa—and in Calgary, Madrid, Athens, and Beijing. In Boston, Bukowski Tavern (named for the grizzled novelist-poet Charles Bukowski) has two locations. And there’s a Bukowski’s in Prague.

‘I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day,’ Bukowski once said in an interview. It is a testament to the esteem in which many hold his dogged alcoholism that this line has appeared both in self-help guides for alcoholics and collections of writerly bon mots on drinking.

Every bar sells, along with drinks, a sense of place, and there are certainly many less tasteful atmospheric concepts than a literary one. Still, this arranging of writing, reading, and drinking into an axis of adult high-mindedness rests on several misconceptions.

Whatever charming myths we may harbor about great writers and alcohol, or about alcoholic writers, they are almost always misplaced—ignoring all the cruelties of illness and misspent energy, broken confidences and promises to loved ones.

Part of the mythology of grand alcoholic writers rests on our desire to see the many different parts of their lives as contributing to a unified artistic whole. And so the drinking must connect to the writing, either as a spark of creativity or as a release from that creativity. Or perhaps the sentimental association of drinking and writerly genius is just an attempt at forming a connection with the great authors of the past.

Most of us can’t write like our heroes, but nearly every one of us can try to drink like them. But it is a poor tribute if Dorothy Parker’s wit, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholy, or John Cheever’s despair comes to be seen, finally, having emerged, already fermented, out of a bottle.

Great writing, even from the legendary drinkers, was most surely done in spite of drinking rather than because of it; nearly all great writing is done in the light of sobriety. Bukowski also said, ‘It’s hard to write prose when you’re drinking, because prose is too much work.’

It’s a bit easier to read while drinking, however, and so the allure endures. Or it did for me until a recent ill-matched combination of location and book changed that.

The setting was a busy and dark Irish pub on Eighth Avenue, across from Penn Station, during the commuting crush. The book was Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, first published in 1944 and reissued earlier this year.

On its surface, the novel seemed a good fit for reading in the low lights of a New York bar. It follows a failed writer in his early thirties named Don Birnam as he travels in and out of bars around the city.

It might have been in a place like the one I was sitting in, but on Second rather than Eighth Avenue, where he makes his first stop and considers his first drink of the evening: ‘Gradually he worked up a subtle and elaborate pretense of ennui: stared at himself in the dark mirror of the bar, as if lost in thought; fingered his glass, turning it round and round or sliding it slowly back and forth in the wet of the counter…’

 Here, I, the self-conscious solitary reader, had a double in Don, alone at a bar, magnifying the supposed effect that he is having on other people.

Yet Don is less interested in his surroundings than he is in pretending not to be interested in the contents of his glass. He delays taking his first drink, savouring its proximity and its imminence.

And then he drinks it, and then another, and another. Don, the narrator explains later, is a man for whom ‘one drink was too many and a hundred not enough.’ But, from the start, it is clear that Don will not be an amiable drinking buddy, and that, for him, the great American bar is a haunted and perilous place.

He thinks back to nights in his youth, when, after staying up late to finish a poem, he would study his face in a mirror to ‘see if he had changed’—to confirm that the process of creation had left some mark on his body.

Suddenly, in a flash of seeming inspiration, Don imagines writing a ‘long short story’ in which a man at a bar very much like the one he’s in allows his thoughts to wander back to those moments in front of the mirror.

It will be called In a Glass, and will allude to the dual mirrors in the past and present, and, of course, to the glass of whiskey before him. He is thrilled by his genius: ‘Whole sentences sprang to his mind in dazzling succession, perfectly formed, ready to be put down. Where was a pencil, paper? He downed his drink…’

The Lost Weekend opens with a line from James Joyce’s short story ‘Counterparts’, from Dubliners: ‘The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot.’

 That story is about an alcoholic office worker whose violent temper leaves him in exile. The line is tragic, signalling the rising of an uncontrollable animal within a sick man.

Yet, removed from its context, it seems like the type of phrase that could be printed on the cocktail napkins at an Irish pub—‘a spell of riot’ merely a few too many drinks, ensuing good fun, and maybe, if you can remember to write it down, the stimulation of some inner genius.

That is the myth of the literary bar. At the start of The Lost Weekend, a sober Don Birnam entertains the idea of reading Dubliners straight through, but his mind quickly wanders to the enticement of the evening’s first drink. Days later, he finds the book on the floor, but addled from withdrawal, he can’t manage to read even a line.

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Image: Pete's Tavern, Google Images

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