So closely are some of the giants of 20th century literature associated with alcohol that modern readers might think that a serious booze habit was once the equivalent of a degree in creative writing from Iowa or UEA. It’s not surprising, therefore, that alcohol permeates the work of writers such as Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. They were writing about what they knew. Alcohol, however, in fiction doesn’t just reflect the lifestyle and times of the writer, its role is more complex and interesting than that.
I’m currently reading a collection called “Shaken and Stirred: Intoxicating Stories” (Everyman). In many of the short stories featured, a drunken incident is the motor of the narrative. For example in Alice Munro’s “An Ounce of Cure” a lovestruck teenager gets paralytic whilst babysitting and becomes an outcast at school ‘but there was a positive, a splendidly unexpected, result of this affair: I got completely over Martin Collingwood.’ In Frank O’Connor’s “the Drunkard”, a boy’s disastrous encounter with a pint of porter prevents his father going on a long-anticipated drinking spree. Both stories pivot on alcohol, the effect in Munro’s is cathartic, she purges herself of her infatuation; in O’ Connor, it’s a reversal of fortune.
Shaken and Stirred features an extract from The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson, another one of literary America’s great boozers. Drink enables Jackson to show us the innermost thoughts of the protagonist, Don Birnam, a failing writer. After a few glasses of rye consumed in a bar, he starts to daydream of literary success. He veers between giddy optimism and neurotic self-doubt. Without the drink, it would seem clunky, but having his thoughts come out in a progression of alcoholic intoxication draws the reader in. ‘Suddenly, sickeningly, the whole thing was so much eyewash’ he thinks after another drink. Something all writers and day dreamers can sympathise with not just drunks.
This use of alcohol to reveal narrative is particularly useful for writers of detective fiction. Fictional detectives spend a lot of time in pubs and bars not just because they like drinking but because that’s where they find information. One of the novelist’s problems is finding something for his characters to do when they are thinking or engaged in conversation. Giving them a drink and a cigarette is makes it appear natural. Drink oils the cogs of the plot.
A good example occurs in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe, a private investigator, meets one of the principal character, Lennox, in a bar. Lennox explains his problems with his wife and we learn that she is terrified of something. Soon afterwards she is found dead. If they had this conversation on the street, it would look staged. In a cafe it wouldn’t work either. Alcohol has to be around so that it seems natural when characters open up and tell stories. Drink is a good way for novelists to tell rather than show without the reader noticing.
Part of the reason fictional detectives have drink problems is because it gives them an air of mystery. Think of Rebus in Ian Rankin’s novels or Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s. Cocaine serves a similar purposes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Detectives solve crimes but they are also trying (and always) failing to solve themselves. Alcohol is an outward symbol of their inner turmoil.
In Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton drink is synonymous with mental illness. Written in the 1930s and set in a grim, smoky Earl’s Court. The hero George Harvey Bone is hopelessly in love with Netta, one of the great monsters of English literature. The more he drinks, the more he is prone to moments where a switch flips in him. In these moments he sees clearly that he must murder her and move to Maidenhead. When these episodes strike, the narrative on the page is disrupted reflecting the Bone’s mental disintegration:
‘He still had the gin bottle in his hand. Watching her carefully, he held it by the neck behind his back. Now! Now! Now! He thought. ‘
The drink of choice in Hangover Square is gin. Gin has a special place in British literature. The very word gin is a byword for particular kind of British frustration. It’s tied up with boarding houses, borrowing money, dead-ends, broken dreams, and unhappy pubs. Think of the works of Graham Greene or Julian Maclaren Ross. The gin-soaked colonial type is a fixture of English literature. Here is Flory the hapless hero of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days: ‘I can never get it into my servant’s head that SOME people can exist without gin before breakfast.’ Orwell’s description of the taste of Victory gin in 1984 is a masterclass in squalor:
“He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine. Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful. “
Ahhh the magic of gin.
Drinks can provide the opposite function, however. In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the constant listing of drinks such as Marsala, Cinzano, Asti Spumante, and Martini, serves as a reminder that there was a normal life before the war and will be afterwards. For Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, “this Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant reminder that the world was an older and better place …” A sip of good wine can take you away from the horrors of war.
In the same novel, alcohol plays a less benevolent role, as a weapon in the snob’s arsenal during a scene where Charles Ryder has dinner in Paris with Rex Mottram, an arriviste Canadian businessman and his love rival. Ryder orders a cognac which is dismissed by Mottram as “the sort of stuff he puts soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they (the waiters) wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort. ’That’s the stuff,’ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass.” Evelyn Waugh wants us to see Mottram as a vulgarian and Ryder as a man of taste but also reveals his own prejudices.
The ultimate boozy status seeker is James Bond. This is from Casino Royale:
Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
Here’s a man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. We’re meant to admire Bond, I think, for his discernment but you could just see him as a bit of bore. It’s only a short leap from Bond to horrendous characters in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho:
“Van Patten,” I say. “Did you see the comp bottle of champagne Montgomery sent over?”
“Really?” Van Patten asks, leaning over McDermott.
“Let me guess. Perrier-Jouët?”
“Bingo,” Price says. “Non Vintage.”
“Fucking weasel,” Van Patten says.
Wine connoisseurship plays a narrative role in two stories in the Shaken and Stirred. In Edgar Allen Poe’s 1846 story “A Cask of Amontillado”, Montresor lures a rival Fortunato down to a deep cellar with the promise of old amontillado sherry which was much-prized in the 19th century. Many sherries were sold as amontillado but they weren’t the real thing. To have the genuine article was unusual. Along the way Montresor gets Fortunato drunk and bricks him up alive in a wall. The mystery which is never solved is why he does this.
The plot of Roald Dahl’s short story “Taste” hinges on identifying a rare Bordeaux but the real amusement comes from the pretensions of the wine taster: ‘a prudent wine. . . rather diffident and evasive but quite prudent’ he says at one point. Waugh too in Brideshead Revisited has enormous fun with wine connoisseurship. In a famous scene Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte try to outdo each with their descriptions of a wine:
: ‘…It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.’
‘Like a leprechaun.’
‘Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.’
‘Like a flute by still water.’
‘…And this is a wise old wine.’
‘A prophet in a cave.’
‘…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.’
‘Like a swan.’
‘Like the last unicorn.’
The miseries of the morning after are even richer ground for comedy. PG Wodehouse’s descriptions of the aural misery of the hangover will surely never be bettered: ‘the Cat Stamped into the Room’ and ‘the roaring of the butterflies.’ It’s no surprise to find in Shaken and Stirred probably the best hangover description in literature from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:
“The light did him 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 expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad”
With a hangover there’s that awful sickening moment when you wake up and then start to have an inkling of how badly you behaved the night before. Dorothy Parker skewers the paranoia expertly in the short story “You were perfectly fine.” In it a young man, Peter, wakes up in a the flat of a lady friend and she recounts what happened the night before: “she thought you were awfully amusing. . . . she only got a tiny little bit annoyed just once, when you poured the clam juice down her back.”
Whatever you want to do in fiction, alcohol can help. It can move the plot forward, it provides comedy, tragedy, explication, it’s a window into a character’s soul and a signifier of turmoil and mental illness. Raymond Chandler wrote that if you’re stuck writing a novel, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” but a drink might work even better. If only real life was as simple.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Guardian