At least four of the 11 American writers who’ve won the Nobel Prize in Literature were alcoholics: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. A fifth, John Steinbeck, probably was, too, while a sixth, the American-born T.S. Eliot, probably wasn’t but aspired to be (one of his cats was named Noilly Prat, after the vermouth). Had he lived long enough, F. Scott Fitzgerald would’ve likely made the list, but he drank himself to death before the Nobel committee could act. Ditto David Foster Wallace, who spent time in a psychiatric ward for alcohol and drug addiction. I’ll take the long odds on Joan Didion eventually winning; though she’s no alcoholic, it’s safe to say she never met a small-batch bourbon she didn’t like.
That’s just the most conspicuous line-up from 20th century American literature’s drunk-tank. The retching-sound in the grubby, unlit corners could be Dashiell Hammett, Shirley Jackson, Frederick Exley, Patricia Highsmith, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers, Hart Crane, Jack London, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Tennessee Williams, Anne Sexton, Djuna Barnes, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, Jean Stafford, or Norman Mailer. That’s just dead writers, most working in and around the mid-century (arguably the high period of American belles-lettres decadence).
It’s not like American writers have a lock on alcoholic depravity; one need look no further than British novelist Graham Greene, who passed most of his adult life in a haze of gin and hookers, to appreciate a true savant of the punchbowl. Still, that’s a lot of drunks. Some drank more than they wrote. Others were insanely prolific considering how consistently shit-faced they got (Sexton, who died at 45, practically showered in martinis, yet her Complete Poems runs to more than 600 pages). Chandler sometimes wrote drunk. Hemingway, surprisingly, almost never did.
Whatever miasma of self-disgust, rage, abject depression, ennui, lust, spiraling anxiety, loneliness, or paranoid fugue state that booze helps mitigate, American writers have it in spades. Of course, presumably so do our coal miners, or taxi drivers, or pet groomers; it’s just that writers are more histrionic about it. I’m not trying to make light of this. Many of those mentioned above had unfathomably bad childhoods, and/or led haunted lives, and no small number ended theirs prematurely. Many were kind, generous, profoundly unhappy, and morbidly aware that drink was keeping them alive while also ravaging their creativity. Saul Bellow said of John Berryman, “Inspiration contained a death threat. He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart. Drink was a stabilizer. It somewhat reduced the fatal intensity.”
But for some writers, drink is more than an anesthetic, more than a provisional self-cure. For some, it’s a creative life-force, a doorstop that keeps the portals propped open that are normally locked-up tight, allowing access to more crucial information, to weirder and occasionally better parts of themselves. Perhaps the same could be said of any Schedule IV controlled substance, or café au lait, or a particularly good pastrami sandwich. But there’s a reason why nearly half our Nobel winners chose booze over blotter acid or phenobarbital. Whether it’s an innocuous, beery bonhomie or a maniacally goosed, barroom floor transfiguration, drink and literature find a mutuality that refines experience to its knife-edge essentials.
As for which American writers accomplished this most brilliantly, consider the following.
Frederick Exley’s uncategorizable, tragicomic, thinly fictionalized memoir, A Fan’s Notes, is the Mount Everest of American Booze Fiction, the big one with which every interested reader must contend before moving on to less formative, more resistible works. The book, as the cover of my 1968 edition puts it, is a “Searing, Prize-Winning Novel of a Young Man’s Odyssey Through Sex, Alcoholism and Insanity” (I’d cross out “Sex,” but the rest is true). Notes’ narrator fumbles from one bitter disillusionment to the next, from one tottering barstool to the next, and from one mental institution to the next, plunging evermore deep into the emotional sinkhole of sports fandom and its eternal binary, sloth. Chapter Five’s title, “Journey on a Davenport,” is a neat summation of Exley’s own physical propensities and a play on his fear that he’s doomed to remain a spectator in life, instead of being center-stage like his hero, the New York Giants’s Frank Gifford.
Exley the writer poured everything he had into this book, which reads as a near-shamanistic cleansing of personal furies, with idiomatically dense paragraphs that build to elegant crescendos of drunken macho-confessional masochism. Exley the character is a drunk, yes, but a smart drunk and a funny one, too. By almost every measure he’s an epic failure, a life-hardened slug. But his belief in the redemptive power of fandom, and in the consolations of idleness – among them the transporting ecstasy of the game-day couch – feels as close to Gnostic gospel as we spectators are likely to get. Notes also has one of the finest and saddest Proustian openings in mid-century American literature, with Exley collapsing during a Giants game after “a weekend of foodless, nearly heroic drinking.” That mortality frightens him comes as a surprise and serves as Exley’s Madeleine – “That the fear of death still owns me is, in its way, a beginning” – a lever that helps him pry loose the heartbreaking, discomfiting past one boilermaker at a time.
No two drinkers are made exactly alike, and Spalding Gray, the writer and monologist who died in 2004, had a far less morose take. His formative drinking, growing up in a Christian Science household in Rhode Island, entailed getting shit-canned on sparkling burgundy and leaping out of second-story windows for a hoot. To him and his pals, booze meant freedom, and aliveness, and sex, and friendship, and cutting the bonds of domestic tedium. Later, as Gray became a storyteller of brash and singular hilarity, he poured all of this back into his writing, creating a treasure house of libertine excess while more or less inventing the confessional monologue.
Although he’s best known for Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy – both of which were made into movies – for my money Gray’s Sex and Death to Age 14 is his funniest and most indispensable work. Like everything he wrote, it began as a stage monologue before gravitating to essay form. The centerpiece story, “Booze, Cars, and College Girls,” is a masterstroke of narcissistic reverie, at the heart of which lies a darkly funny, imaginative world populated by screwball drinking buddies named “Meatman Pete” and “Crusher Henry,” case after case of Black Label beer, abundant humiliating sexual imbroglios, and no small amount of A-200 crab lice remover. During adolescent “beer blasts,” Gray and friends would send out for pizza and quickly get “disgustingly drunk.”
Then Crusher Henry would stand in the corner of the rec room and we’d all charge at him, one at a time, and bounce of his 275-pound belly, while he farted and burped like a backfiring bumper car…
These are essays in the great American tradition of comedic misdirection. They take you to so many surprising places, and accommodate so many weird dimensions and so much restless soul-searching, that a reader has no choice but to dissolve into Gray’s subterranean milieu. The man was the Jules Verne of the liver.
The barest parameters of Anne Sexton’s life reveal a bruising existence. Many of her poems – “Suicide Note,” “Wanting to Die,” “For Mr. Death Who Stands With His Door Open” – read like private conversations with death. The last book she published while still alive, The Death Notebooks (1974), she had intended to be posthumous, so close to death did Sexton hover. After a decades-long gauntlet of bipolar disorder, institutionalizations, psychotherapy, crippling dependence on prescription drugs and alcohol, with which she had a spiritual communion, she sat in the driver’s seat of her Mercury Cougar, closed the garage door, and with a glass of vodka in her hand, turned on the ignition.
The sad irony is that in so many ways Sexton was exuberantly, defiantly alive. Maybe the problem was she was too alive, lacking even the most basic emotive defenses. “Anne Sexton killed herself because it is just too painful to live in this world without numbness, and she had no numbness at all,” wrote her friend, Erica Jong. Unfortunately for Anne Sexton, that seems to be precisely what makes her verse so beguiling. It trades in grit and openness, in breathless brokenhearted candor. One imagines she often worked while peering over the top of a martini glass, as her lines swing easily between acrimony and affection – a real drunk’s cornerstones. Call me morbid, but at the end of a long day, I like to sit with Sexton’s The Complete Poems and a Manhattan – two-parts bourbon, one-part vermouth and a dash of melancholy – and flip around. Here is part of “Courage,” as thorough an excavation of life’s verities as Sexton ever made:
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
Donald E. Westlake
When he died in 2008, Donald E. Westlake had more than 100 books under his belt, most of them compact, bloody thrillers whose protagonists find themselves in bottomless moral decline. His infamous anti-hero, the professional lowlife and thief, “Parker,” is a cross between Sam Spade and Willie T. Soke from “Bad Santa”. If he wasn’t drinking, Westlake could pound out 5,000 words a day on his Smith Corona, possessed of a vast, sonorous fictional cosmos where everyone is always double-crossing everyone else and where revenge, murder, machine guns, highballs and hate-fucks are as revelatory and commonplace as the morning coffee. Also, the guy could write. His 1971 novel, Slayground, begins: “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other…the armored car lay on it side in a snowbank, its wheels turning like a dog chasing rabbits in his sleep.” In between heists and back-stabbings, Parker hits the shuffleboard scene in Florida, but eventually, of course, a casino must get knocked-off – it’s just sitting there, asking for it – a long-postponed revenge enacted, and our voyeurism lustfully sated.
Because people didn’t believe that one writer could produce so much (up to seven novels a year), Westlake wrote under several pseudonyms, including Richard Stark, the name on the cover of the “Parker” books, of which there are 24. The first is The Hunter, which became a 1967 John Boorman film, “Point Blank,” with Lee Marvin. The book is an orgy of multitudinous, Tarantino-ish, mystical violence. After being double-crossed by a pal, Parker boils his anger down to its essentials:
I’m going to drink his blood. I’m going to chew up his heart and spit it into the gutter for the dogs to raise a leg at. I’m going to peel the skin off him and rip out his veins and hang him with them.
On these counts he largely succeeds. The next two works in the Parker series, The Outfit and The Man With the Getaway Face (with The Hunter, the three form a trilogy) distill his score-settling into an excessive, if slightly misaimed, yet totally satisfying whirlwind of violence and disfigurement. It pairs perfectly with a dry martini.
John Berryman’s opinion of his autobiographical novel, Recovery, about his stint in an alcohol treatment center, was hardly enthusiastic. Judging it a pile of crap, and quailing at a constellation of old griefs, he leapt from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972, killing himself at the age of 57. Published a year later, Recovery got better reviews from other readers, some of whom, I like to imagine, saw it for what it is: a brilliant, fire-tongued, pitch-black comedy of the bottle’s inescapable grip and attendant humiliations. There’s also a heavy measure of vomit, fights, falls, memory loss, and physical and emotional collapse, sometimes all at once. On receiving an ultimatum from his wife, Berryman’s protagonist, the grimly-named Alan Severance (second only in American fiction to Paul Bowles’ “Port Moresby” in The Sheltering Sky), a straight bourbon man who allows an occasional brandy, agrees to a last stab at detox to arrest yet another “irresistible descent”:
Relief drinking occasional then constant, increase in alcohol tolerance, first blackouts, surreptitious drinking, growing dependence, urgency of FIRST drinks, guilt spreading, unable to bear discussion of the problem, blackout crescendo, failure of ability to stop along with others (the evening really begins after you leave the party)… grandiose and aggressive behavior, remorse without respite, controls fail, resolutions fail, decline of other interests, avoidance of wife and friends and colleagues, work troubles, irrational resentments, inability to eat, erosion of the ordinary will, tremor and sweating… injuries, moral deterioration, impaired and delusional thinking, low bars and witless cronies….
Although Berryman is remembered mainly for his poetry – his “dream song” collections won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award – Recovery is the highest and most beautiful expression of his prose genius. There are flashes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the sterile ward rooms and group therapy sessions and endless corridor pacing. Except Recovery’s better, both on a sentence level and in the bleak inscriptions of institutional treatment, which abide no end of misery. At root it’s a religious book – the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are even appended – with Severance threading a line between spiritual salvation and road’s end, and with allegorical leaps into imaginative precincts that most of us never breech. “Awake, ye drunkards, and weep…for it is cut off from your mouth,” Berryman quotes a King James killjoy on the withholding of the biblical lifeblood of wine. Severance, faced with a similar final quaff, wonders “whether to shout with relief or horror”? For some of us, it’s the most vital question.
After that story, we can’t in good conscience suggest you have a glass of Scotch. Consider a strong cup of black coffee instead. Read the story.