Alcoholics write books, too.
Sometimes they write crime fiction.
Sometimes they write literary works. No matter what form the novel takes, the
real dark star is the bottle.
Think of Dr. Strangelove riding the bomb
out of the bomb hatch and into oblivion. Substitute a bottle for a bomb and you
find a metaphor that unites a number of books in this genre: The drunken
hero/anti-hero. Drinking is not just a life style; it form, shapes, distorts the
human condition. Like a moth to flame, we can’t take our eyes off the flutter of
wings as they close in on the fire. What is not terribly surprising about these
books is their semi-autographical nature. Where the drinking takes place the
strip joints, bars, nightclubs, and back alleys also transports the reader into
the environment where the drinking takes place. Not every writer who creates a
drunk for a hero is an alcoholic. Though looking at the record, it would seem
that such a writer is rare.
During the late 17th century during the Gin Craze about
a third of the population of London was drunk. Some would say that those numbers
have once again repeated themselves in English cities and towns. Drink was
associated with "the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed
among the inferior sort of people."
In literature, the hero is rarely a
working-class drunk. More often than not he’s a professional: the heir of a rich
father (Crumley), a diplomat (Lowry), or a lawyer (Philips). Though Bukowski and
O’Brien have working class types at the center of their drunken hero.
I’ve been reading James Crumley’s Dancing Bear. His private investigator, Milodragovitch or Milo, moves
between a snort of coke and gulping down shots of schnapps. He battles his
addiction to booze and drugs as he solves crimes. Sometimes a case of drugs
falls into his lap and he struggles between the desire to consume the whole lot
and selling the cache. Milo also uses the magic dust with women in the books.
Crumley captures the utter despair, loneliness and ennui of a private
investigator. As one Amazon reviewer put it, this series is beyond noir, and
enters a new level where the darkness of the void emits no light. His turf is
the Pacific Northwest. Think Montana and Washington States, the back roads, the
small towns, petty jealous over women and money.
Milo also appears in Crumley’s The Wrong Case. From what I’ve read (I haven’t started this book yet) it is
the best of Milo novels. I look forward to reading and reporting on it.
I wonder if Crumley’s book were an inspiration behind the
drunken, crooked lawyer in Scott Philips’ The Ice Harvest Charlie Arglist, a small town lawyer, spends Christmas Eve
hitting the bottle and making the rounds of bars and family to say goodbye
before leaving town.
John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas features the ultimate drunk. A self-destructive hero in a
complicated relationship resorts to the bottle rather than pills or a handgun to
destroy himself. Ben, who has found booze as a way to keep him planted in the
eternal “now”, teams with a hooker escaping from her pimp. It is often a moving
relationship but what they share will save neither person. They settle in for
the long, inevitable ride to the bottom. I remember O’Brien’s father who, in an
interview, sat that Leaving Las Vegas was a long suicide note left by his son. No question that the
book documents one man’s mission to use booze as his exit plan from life.
Charles Bukowski’s Barfly is another book where the central character goes on a
three-day drinking binge. A first edition of the 1984 hardback will set you back $360.00.
classic novel of despair with a central character whose life revolves around the
bottle is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.
Lowry’s masterpiece, which takes place on one day in Mexico. It
is not any day. We are introduced to the central character, drink in hand,
watching a parade of villagers in Quauhnahuac on All Soul’s Day. The day of the
dead is a perfect introduction to Geoffrey Firmin, a former British diplomat. He
is rumbling around a foreign country trying to make sense of his failed
marriage. A year after the divorce, his ex-wife returns in attempt to rescue the
consul. But the booze has cast a power over him that she can’t break; it is the
crutch for all that has gone wrong in his marriage and life. Unlike the other
novels discussed this one is literary in every sense of the word from symbolism,
myths and allusions. It is about the inner workings of the mind of alcoholic.
Like O’Brien, Lowry was also a drunk, and died in British Columbia in what was
likely a suicide (booze and pills).
Hollywood is fascinated by the
drunk, whether it is comedy or despair, it is not difficult to find films with
the self-destructive drunk in a final tango with death.. Both Ice Harvest (John Cusack) and Leaving Las Vegas (Nick Cage) were made into major feature films. Under the
Volcano was also made into a film. Albert Finney starred in the film version of
Under the Volcano. And there is Mickey Rourke in Barfly. But so far they’ve not discovered James Crumley’s Milo.