Books

12.28.13

The 10 Best Books on Literary Drunkenness

From John Cheever’s haunting story ‘The Swimmer’ to the eloquent hangovers of Kingsley Amis, here are the 10 best books and stories on drinking and booze. Sip carefully. Olivia Laing is the author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.

Over the past few years, I’ve become a connoisseur of literary drunkenness. Once you start looking, alcohol is everywhere in literature, streaming dangerously through the books of sots and teetotallers alike. Here are ten of the greatest fictional takes on drinking, catching both the pleasures of a good night’s boozing and the troubles it can bring crashing down upon a life. Be warned, though: some of these might put you off the sauce for good.

The Mayor of Casterbridge
By Thomas Hardy

Not all great books on alcoholism are written by alcoholics, and Hardy’s bleakly beautiful morality tale about a self-made man who authors his own downfall is a case in point. Michael Henchard, the eponymous mayor, is first encountered getting drunk on furmity (a frankly delicious-sounding concoction of rum, milk and raisins). Minutes later, he sells his wife to a sailor: a scene that sears itself into the memory. Published in 1886, this remains a frighteningly accurate portrait of the alcoholic personality.

Tender is the Night
By F. Scott Fitzgerald

I can think of very few books that choreograph a downward spiral with such elegant and terrifying precision. Dick Diver begins as the graceful, competent king of the Riviera and ends as a washed-up drunk, estranged from everyone he loves. Though it’s denser and more irregular than The Great Gatsby, Tender also contains some of Fitzgerald’s most magical writing and arresting images and scenes.

Good Morning, Midnight
By Jean Rhys

Unjustly neglected, Jean Rhys’s taut, dark fable tells the story of Sasha Jensen, a middle-aged woman who hopes to start a new life in Paris. Rhys is ruthlessly good on both sexual and social humiliation, and vividly captures the plight of a woman fast running out of money, looks and luck in a society that always judged women’s drinking far more harshly than that of men.

The Lost Weekend
By Charles R. Jackson

There’s no novel, to my mind, that so brilliantly captures what it actually feels like to be addicted to alcohol. Jackson was an alcoholic himself, and he poured his frustration and self-loathing into this unnerving account of a would-be writer, Don Birnam, and his near-lethal bender. Its genius lies in the slippery way Jackson charts Birnam’s thoughts, capturing his self-delusion, his grandiosity and his desperate longing for the obliteration that only alcohol can bring.

Lucky Jim
By Kingsley Amis

Drinking is a serious business, but it can also be very funny, and never more so than in the hands of Kingsley Amis. Lucky Jim was his first novel, and contains the finest words on a hangover that are ever likely to be written. He’s also very good on the business of getting drunk itself, and the dreadful things that might occur as one staggers gamely from the night before to the morning after.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams wrote Cat in the early 1950s, when he was well into the thickets of his own addiction. It possesses a structural perfection that is startling when one consults his diaries of the period. The play deals with the travails of a wealthy Southern family, and particularly of Brick, the hard-drinking former football player who cannot quite admit he fell in love with a teammate. It also contains my favorite explanations of what a drinker is looking for: “The click I get in my head when I’ve had enough of this stuff to make me peaceful.”

‘The Swimmer’
By John Cheever

Cheever wrote this eerie, dreamlike story in 1963, when his own relationship with alcohol had slewed out of control. It’s about a charming man who resolves to swim home from a party by way of his neighbors’ pools. The lurches in time and devastating conclusion make it linger unsettlingly in the mind. Speaking a few years later to the Paris Review, Cheever commented: “When he finds it’s dark and cold, it has to have happened. And, by God, it did happen. I felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story.”

A Moveable Feast
By Ernest Hemingway

Published posthumously (after Hemingway’s suicide in 1961), A Moveable Feast is an embellished memoir of his years in Paris, when he was newly married and had a small son, and things were very simple and very good. He spins beautiful, unreliable stories, particularly about his old friend Scott Fitzgerald and the vast quantities of wine and whisky they used to stow away. The story about a roadtrip to Lyon to rescue an abandoned car is a particular pearl.

Recovery
By John Berryman

Like A Moveable Feast, Recovery was also published after the writer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman, killed himself. It’s an extraordinary piece of work: an unfinished, lightly fictionalised account of Berryman’s own stint in an alcohol treatment centre. There’s no actual boozing, of course, but rather an extended and often bleakly funny riff on why people drink in the first place, and how agonisingly hard it can be to stop. Though I’ve read it many times, I’m always jolted anew by the abrupt end, and the tragic reason for it.

‘Where I’m Calling From’
By Raymond Carver

Also set in a recovery center, ‘Where I’m Calling From’ draws on Carver’s own experiences with the bottle, alchemizing his personal misery into a deft and wonderfully controlled story, much of it told by way of typically terse dialogue. It refers frequently too to Jack London, another writer who struggled with the bottle, reminding the reader yet again that writing and drinking are—for the time being at least—inextricably entwined.