THE BOTTLE INSIDE THE BOOK
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.
The 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.