Cheers

John Lanchester

  • The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer by Tom Dardis
    Abacus, 292 pp, £3.99, February 1990, ISBN 0 349 10143 4

Though the incidence of alcoholism among American writers has been extraordinarily high, fictional depictions of the condition by American novelists are surprisingly rare. One of the most vivid comes from John Updike’s Bech is back, the second of his books to deal with the American writer’s life through the alter ego of unprolific Jewish novelist Henry Bech, here attending a party:

Like a fuzzy sock being ejected by the tumble drier there was flung towards Bech the shapeless face of Vernon Klegg, the American Kafka, whose austere minimalist renderings of kitchen spats and dishevelled mobile homes were the rage of writers’ conferences and federal and state arts councils. There was at the heart of Klegg’s work a haunting enigma. Why were these heroines shrieking? Why were these heroes going bankrupt, their businesses sliding from neglect so resistlessly into ruin? Why were these children so rude, so angry and so estranged? The enigma gave Klegg’s portrayal of the human situation a hollowness hailed as quintessentially American; he was published with great faithfulness in the Soviet Union, as yet another illustrator of the West’s sure doom, and was a pet of Left intelligentsia everywhere. Yet one did not have to be a very close friend of Klegg’s to know that the riddling texture of his work sprung from a humble personal cause: except for that dawn hour of each day when, pained by hangover and recommencing thirst, Klegg composed his few hundred beautifully minimal words – nouns, verbs, nouns – he was drunk. He was a helpless alcoholic from whom wives, households, faculty positions, and entire neighbourhoods of baffled order slid with mysterious ease. Typically in a Klegg conte the hero would blandly discover himself to have in his hands a butcher knife, or the broken fronds of a rubber plant, or the buttocks of a pubescent baby-sitter. Alcohol was rarely described in Klegg’s work, and he may himself not have recognised it as the element which kept his world in perpetual centrifugal motion.

This funny, ungenerous evocation of the ‘American Kafka’ is surely a version of Raymond Carver, the ‘American Chekhov’, as transmogrified by Updike’s imagination. Certainly alcohol plays a part in Carver’s work very similar to the one it does in Klegg’s. On the other hand, the real-life Carver managed to give up drinking after the publication and success of What we talk about when we talk about love and said that he would rather take poison than live through his youth again.

This makes Carver one of American literary history’s escapees from alcohol: there aren’t too many of them. The Thirsty Muse is an examination of the phenomenon of alcoholism among American writers, or least that’s what it professes to be: in fact, it is an introductory essay and four biographical sketches which study the impact of drink on the lives of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill. Although The Thirsty Muse has its flaws, it succeeds in making it impossible to view drinking and alcoholism as anything other than absolutely central to the truncation of their creative careers. As Dardis points out, Faulkner had finished his best work by the time he was 44 (Go Down Moses), Fitzgerald by the time he was 38 (Tender is the night) and Hemingway by 41 (a judgment which gives For whom the bell tolls the benefit of the doubt). O’Neill was the one who got away: he became teetotal at 37 and, in The iceman cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, wrote two good (Dardis says great) plays about addiction.

The meat of The Thirsty Muse is in its biographical essays, in which life and work are grimly viewed through the perpective of drink. The result is instructive, depressing and tragi-comic. Consider Across the River and into the Trees. Everybody knows that the book is a disaster, but Dardis’s analysis offers a new angle on the reason for its failure. He examines the passage where Hemingway sends the Hemingway-figure, the charismatic, disillusioned, illusionless warrior Colonel Cantwell, on an evening out in Venice. Before going to dinner, Cantwell drinks a gin and Campari, three extra-dry martinis, another gin and Campari and three montgomerys (a kind of super-ultra-mega-dry martini). At dinner with Renata, his aristocratic teenage girlfriend, the Colonel shares a bottle of Capri Bianco, two bottles of Valpolicella, a bottle of champagne (Roederer brut ’42) and another bottle of champagne (Perrier-Jouet, vintage unspecified). He takes a bottle of Valpolicella along when he and Renata go off to have sex (twice) in a gondola, and when he gets back to his hotel he has a nightcap swig of the Valpolicella which the waiter has thoughtfully left.

The telling detail is that Hemingway finds nothing out of the ordinary in the Colonel’s drinkathon, in the course of which, back-of-envelope arithmetic informs me, he consumes upward of forty units of alcohol during a single evening – the equivalent of 20 pints of beer or six bottles of wine or a bottle-and-a-bit of spirits. The reason this level of consumption appeared normal to Hemingway is that it was a fairly accurate transcription of the amount of booze he was quotidianly ingesting: it’s no wonder that his responses had coarsened, or that his feeling for ordinary life-as-it-is-lived had gone wonky. Though Hemingway’s constitution never quite collapsed from drinking in the same way that Fitzgerald’s and Faulkner’s did – he took tremendous comfort in monitoring the disintegration of the other two writers, and claimed he could tell straight away when they had been writing ‘on corn’ – alcohol was vital in the process by which he became a hollowed-out caricature of himself. His son’s memoir includes a gruesome account of a day spent with his father, the first time they had spent together since Jack became an adult. Hemingway père and fils went up on the roof of Hemingway’s work-room, armed with shotguns, in order to kill some of the local buzzards. Hemingway got his servant to bring up a pitcher of martinis: after three pitchers (and many buzzard deaths) they went downstairs to watch Hemingway’s print of Casablanca. ‘Isn’t the Swede beautiful? I mean truly, truly beautiful,’ Hemingway said of Ingrid Bergman. His son agreed. The two men started weeping uncontrollably over Bergman’s beauty. This was in 1955, with six years of decline to go.

Hemingway’s slogan, ‘good writers are drinking writers,’ could easily have been spoken by Faulkner, who instead used to say: ‘Isn’t nothing Ah got whiskey won’t cure.’ This turned out not to be the case – though if any writer can claim to have made effective use of alcohol, it was Faulkner during his heroic period. All his life he drank while writing, ‘keeping the whiskey within reach’ after starting the day with a whiskey-and-water, a procedure which seemed to be serving him well (The Sound and the Fury, As I lay dying, Light in August were all written like this), until it started to serve him less well, and the long history of collapses, black-outs and hospitalisations began. His first hospitalisation was in 1936, and there were to be very many more before his death in 1962; he survived seizures of an intensity that might well have been expected to be fatal; he had a blackout that lasted for two entire days. He also had accidents, like the time he fell back against a steam pipe in the bathroom and was too drunk to realise that he was sustaining third-degree burns on his back, or the time that he nearly crashed his aeroplane. ‘You can’t drink and fly, Bill,’ a friend sagely counselled. It’s a remarkable testimony to the strength of Faulkner’s constitution and character that he lived so long.

Fitzgerald was different: if ever there was someone who simply should not have drunk at all, it was Fitzgerald. He would become paralytic on tiny amounts of alcohol – once, to Hemingway’s amazement, on a third of a bottle of champagne – but that did not, as in the classic alcoholic pattern, prevent him from carrying on drinking, with predictable results on his health, creativity and marriage. The power, and the destructiveness, of the idea of the-writer-as-drinker is very clear in Fitzgerald’s case: his drinking was bound up with the then widespread sense that alcohol was a necessity to writers, and with his admiration for Hemingway. Dardis points to the importance of Prohibition as a glamoriser and mythologiser of drink: the spectacle of women drinking in public only became socially acceptable, Dardis notes, after alcohol was declared illegal.

There are difficulties with The Thirsty Muse, however, and they can be put into focus by considering the essay on Eugene O’Neill. There had been a particular ferocity and desperation about the way O’Neill drank: once, after a dry period, he went down to the cellar to taste some cider with Hart Crane and Malcolm Cowley, who had dropped around to his house in Connecticut. His wife found him in New York a week later. On another occasion, he took a half-empty bottle of a Prohibition spirit called Tiger Piss – brand names were less misleading in those days – urinated in it, and drank it. This was in order to demonstrate his willingness to drink literally anything. When, after the death (from alcoholism) of his brother, O’Neill came to give up drink, he did so by the very unusual method of talking to a therapist.

Dardis makes this life-story fit the pattern he has established by turning it into a morality tale: drunk drinks, drunk kicks drink, drunk writes great plays. There is a strong implied contrast with the other writers, a contrast which is designed to reinforce and to illustrate the tenets concerning alcoholism embraced throughout The Thirsty Muse. These tenets are those adhered to by Alcoholics Anonymous – Dardis announces that he had attended over a hundred meetings of the organisation – and they include the belief that alcoholism is a disease; that alcoholics have lost all power over alcohol; that, for an alcoholic, loss of control follows from the first drink; that total abstention is the only way to treat the disease.

There are two problems with this package of assumptions: the first is that they aren’t necessarily true, the second is that the ‘disease model’ emphasises the similarities between the afflicted writers, at the price of their more interesting, and perhaps more significant, differences. Herbert Fingarette’s book Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease points to the large amounts of evidence which contradicts the idea of alcoholism as a unitary phenomenon.[*] For instance, Dardis (and he is not alone in this) makes much of the studies of Donald Goodwin, who attempted to investigate the genetic basis of alcoholism by studying its incidence among adopted children. Goodwin showed that children who had an alcoholic biological parent (‘alcoholic’ defined as someone who had undergone at least one hospitalisation for the disease) were 3.6 times more likely to become alcoholic than children who did not. (The proportions were about the same whether or not the adopting parents were alcoholic.) About 18 per cent of the children with alcoholic parents developed the condition, compared with 5 per cent of the others.

It’s an extraordinary result, which offers strong evidence for some genetic transmission of alcoholism – but Fingarette points out that it still leaves 82 per cent of children with alcoholic parents to grow up without the ‘disease’. ‘Either the relevant genes are usually not transmitted or the genes are transmitted but are usually outweighed by other factors.’ It’s also the case that by far the larger number of alcoholics have parents who are not themselves alcoholic: so all one can conclude, with Fingarette, is that ‘any genetic factor must be but one possible factor among others and that this genetic factor makes a difference in only a minority of cases.’

Fingarette and Co want to replace the idea of alcoholism as a disease with that of heavy drinking as a ‘central activity’, an activity around which people organise and structure their lives, and which can be as varied in its course and its consequences as any other activity. This is a good perspective from which to inspect the question of writers and drink, probably a better perspective than the mono-maniacal, AA-sponsored one Dardis adopts. The question Dardis poses, as to whether ‘some link exists between alcoholism and creativity,’ is a good question, and one not best answered through AA’s pseudo-scientific dogma. Cultural attitudes to drinking must be central to the way in which writers use and are used by drink: it’s odd that the two best post-war novels about alcoholism (Under the Volcano and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) were both written by Britons. While we’re waiting for a book which goes into all this, we might ponder the fact that in America, there have been calls for a law requiring all alcohol bottled in the USA to carry a health warning directed at drivers and pregnant women. It mightn’t be a bad idea to add writers to the list.

[*] Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease by Herbert Fingarette (University of California Press, 166 pp., £5, 1989, 0 520 06754).