Another round of inebriated literature for the house, bartender!
Early last year, PKM published an article called “The Ten Best Books By Drunks”.
It has received hiccups of readership over the past year, generating comments, most recently from Richard Schober, who is reissuing one of the books on that original list, Sweet Adversity by Donald Newlove on his Tough Poets Press imprint http://www.toughpoets.com/
Since that time, we’ve been told about, or stumbled upon on our own, more great books written by drunks. The literary canon and the underground both offer countless examples of drunks who wrote books, but PKM’s list is more focused on books that depict the drinking life, for good or ill—with booze, it’s usually for ill. That’s why we’ve left out titles by famous drunks like Dorothy Parker, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Delmore Schwartz, Carson McCullers, Vachel Lindsay, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner (whose novel Pylon is about a drunk but it’s a terrible book). They may have all been drunks, but they didn’t hold up a mirror to themselves as inebriates in their writing.
So, needing very little encouragement beyond a seemingly abiding interest by PKM readers—what is it with you people and booze?—we offer the following Ten More Great Books By Drunks with a hoisted mug of coffee spiked with nothing stronger than low-fat milk, “Cheers!”
Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
The title story picks up from where Fred Exley left off in A Fan’s Notes, with the sweet and fragile melancholy of a detox unit [It opens, matter-of-factly, “J.P. and I are on the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility.”] There are 37 stories in all in this, Carver’s heftiest collection. Thirty-seven booze-soaked tales. Thirty-seven rooms of gloom, to paraphrase the Four Tops. Each one is a sad-funny little gem.
Lit by Mary Karr
“In a gravelly, ground-glass-under-your-heel voice that can take you from laughter to awe in a few sentences,” writes Susan Cheever in her Times review of this 2009 memoir, “Karr has written the best book about being a woman in America I have read in years.” Cheever, the daughter of one of America’s greatest writing drunks (see next entry) and a former drinker herself, knows the terrain. Indeed, Lit is also one of the funniest books about being a woman drunk ever written. Typical of Karr’s spot-on prose: “I sneak around, reaching under beds and into the hamper, gathering rat-holed beer cans and wine bottles…I unload them from the hatchback like body parts into Dumpsters all over town.”
Collected Stories by John Cheever
Cheever’s battle with the bottle was epic, though he ultimately won a split decision toward the end of his life when sobriety allowed him to take a victory lap on the literary awards circuit. His Collected Stories won a Pulitzer and other prizes, including cementing his literary reputation with the sixty stories contained in this sublime, gin-soaked volume. They are tales of the big city and of the existential malaise of suburban New York and Connecticut. Some are worth reading and rereading over the years, especially “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “The Sorrows of Gin,” “O Youth and Beauty!”, “The Five-Forty-Eight,” “The Swimmer,” and “Goodbye My Brother”.
Too Much Too Soon by Diana Barrymore, with Gerold Frank
The book that spawned the movie that inspired the title of the New York Dolls’ second album (and, in a way, summarized the entire philosophy of the band). The blessings and curses of alcohol and fame are intertwined in this chronicle of a famous family of actors. If nothing else, it proves that being a lifelong drunk requires some thespian talents.
The Drinker by Hans Fallada
The Drinker is one of the most remarkable books to resurface from the madness of the Third Reich. Originally written in 1944, when Fallada was incarcerated in an insane asylum by the Nazis, the manuscript was not discovered until after his death. It had to be deciphered from an encrypted notebook he kept to avoid reprisals. A version of it was published in 1952, at which point it quickly fell into obscurity.Disguised as the tale of a hapless man whose life is destroyed by alcohol, The Drinker is far deeper than a graphic depiction of chemical addiction, though it is as good and true an account of that as has ever been put to paper. The narrator, who has been jailed after his wife claims that during a spree of binge drinking (which he doesn’t remember) he tried to strangle her, lives on the false promises of the authorities, who infer that he will be released when he proves he has “changed.” He is sustained by his barely suppressed delusions of revenge against those who’ve placed him in such a fix. Meanwhile, he falls as low as anyone can go—his wife divorces him and remarries while he is incarcerated, and she steals his old successful business in the bargain; his nose is nearly bitten off by a deranged fellow inmate; his body is infested with boils and his stomach never stops grumbling from hunger pangs.
His fall from grace—the skids greased by demon schnapps, brandy and beer—is complete by novel’s end. But alcohol is just a stand-in for the Nazi regime, the real source of the author’s “illness.” Fallada’s crime was his failure to adapt to fascism. His personal courage seems extraordinary in hindsight. Even though his British publisher, George Putnam, made a boat available to him, Fallada elected to stay behind in Germany even as contemporaries like Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann fled for safety. Placed under house arrest by the Nazis, Fallada was ordered by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels to write an anti-Semitic novel for national distribution. When the strain of producing such a monstrosity became too great, he had a mental breakdown—exacerbated by drink and drugs—and Goebbels ordered him placed in a facility for the “criminally insane.” There, hoping to win his release, Fallada pretended to write the novel Goebbels wanted but, instead, wrote The Drinker and two other novels, using a code of his own devise to cover his tracks.
After Fallada was freed at war’s end by Allied troops, his publisher sought to jumpstart his career by providing him a file that the Gestapo kept on a working class couple who’d resisted the Nazi rule. Inspired by the true-life account, Fallada wrote his final novel, Every Man Dies Alone. He did not live to see its publication (or The Drinker’s publication); he died weeks before it went to press in 1947.
Jernigan by David Gates
I don’t know if Gates is a drunk, or a recovering drunk, but no novel I’ve read has captured the essence of a wise-ass drunk’s worldview better than Jernigan. Peter Jernigan is a man set adrift in suburbia, his wife having died in a car wreck partly caused by his drunken obliviousness, and he’s left to raise a surly, loner son by himself. Soon enough, he begins staying over at house of the mother of his son’s girlfriend, offering the creepy tableau of a father and son shacking up with different women in the same house. The creepiness is leavened by the fact that Gates writes like a dream, can be brutally funny and that you really find yourself rooting for this smartass walking disaster because, yes, you may also see some of yourself in him. My only complaint is that Gates doesn’t publish often enough.
The Third Strike by Jerry Gray
Anyone who has climbed into the ring with the bottle knows it’s a battle that can’t be won. It’s not even a fair fight. You are always outweighed, outclassed, out of your depths. The bigger you think you are, the harder you fall. At age 27, Jerry Gray—a dry-docked sailor with an unquenchable thirst—knew this like he knew he could write. That was, in fact, his ace in the hole—his belief that he could be an American Dostoevsky. The Third Strike—which the publisher Hazelden described as “An alcoholic’s brilliant self-analysis”—begins at what seems the peak of his powers. It is 1929. Prohibition is in effect but unregulated booze flows like fountains of plenty for the walking wounded of any American city. Gray knows where every illegal speakeasy, gin mill and boozer’s crash pad is located in New York, especially the area around South Street Seaport where he signed on for ship duty whenever he needed to take “a cure of separation.” He has been inside every one, memorized the look, smell, taste and sound of them.
The Third Strike is, in essence, Gray’s suicide note, his self-pronounced death sentence. When one is given a death sentence, it crystalizes the mind, hardens the resolve. He is resolved to commit suicide at the tail end of his final gin bender—by jumping into New York Harbor from Battery Park. And so, with this consoling goal ahead of him, he unfolds his tale of woe. In his unforgettable, 59-page narrative, Gray walks you through what you believe are his final hours. Only a freakish encounter in Battery Park prevents him from taking the final plunge on this night. But that encounter only delays the inevitable by a few years.
No one who reads this can remain unmoved, if not unchanged. Bottom’s up, down the hatch. Here’s to your health.
Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
Drinking, and alcoholism, seemed to be the only thing O’Neill wrote about, but this play, which won him a posthumous Pulitzer, seems to, ahem, distill all of that booze talk into one masterful autobiographical horror show. Typical of the play’s story line is this random excerpt from an online summary: “Although both men are drunk, they both realize that Mary is back on morphine, although she attempts to act as if she is not. Jamie has not returned home, but has elected instead to continue drinking and to visit the local whorehouse.” The lighter side of drinking, in other words.
The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This work was, like the author’s life, never fully completed, though an attempt at finishing it was made by Fitzgerald’s fellow imbiber Edmund Wilson. It’s not a novel, but a sort of memoir pieced together from essays, notes and other ephemera the author left behind. The seeds of his own alcoholic dissipation were scattered throughout these pages.
Grand Central Winter by Lee Stringer
Not strictly a drunk, Stringer became homeless when he lost his job and couldn’t pay his rent. He then turned to whatever intoxicants were at hand to dull the physical and psychic pain of living on the streets of New York City for the next ten years. This was before Manhattan was its present-day gentrified shopping mall. Stringer’s is a survival story but it’s also a success story, though Stringer has a grasp on how ephemeral success can be after a decade on the streets (and tunnels underneath Grand Central Station). The detailed description of his daily/nightly rituals, the rejections and cruelties of passersby, the gratitude for still being alive will warm the cockles of the coldest heart. I read this book 20 years ago; it has stayed with me ever since.