Greatest Books on Booze: From Hemingway to Falstaff

From Hemingway to Shakespeare, here are 10 writers who brought alcohol to effervescent life.


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“The Second Tree From the Corner,” by E. B. White

In this short story about a man who visits a psychiatrist to rid himself of “bizarre thoughts,” E.B. White, the master of sensibility, simply had to conjure the longing gaze at alcohol, and the rest of the story goes about shredding itself around the mystifying void of the glass, looking for that deep, formless fulfillment:

“Trexler knew what he wanted, and what, in general, all men wanted … He was satisfied to remember that it was deep, formless, enduring, and impossible of fulfillment, and that it made men sick, and that when you sauntered along Third Avenue and looked through the doorways into the dim saloons, you could sometimes pick out from the unregenerate ranks the ones who had not forgotten, gazing steadily into the bottoms of the glasses on the long chance that they could get another little peek at it.”

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"The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s novel is so filled with booze it makes an Anheuser-Busch factory look like a detox center. You can decide to read it as Hemingway’s handy guide on how to drink a ton in Paris, Pamplona, and other contenders for most beautiful places on Earth, and still have a miserable time. The misery of the prose, however, lies in experiencing just how lost the Lost Generation really was.

“‘Certainly like to drink,’ Bill said. ‘You ought to try it some times, Jake.’

‘You’re about a hundred and forty-four ahead of me.’

‘Ought not to daunt you. Never be daunted. Secret of my success. Never been daunted. Never been daunted in public.’

‘Where were you drinking?’

‘Stopped at the Crillon. George made me a couple of Jack Roses. George’s a great man. Know the secret of his success? Never been daunted.’

‘You’ll be daunted after about three more pernods.’

‘Not in public. If I begin to feel daunted I’ll go off by myself. I’m like a cat that way.’”

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver demonstrates that talking about love should always be done while polishing off two bottles of gin in an ice bucket before dinner. The story is as meticulous as it is heartbreaking, the way a good bottle of gin ought to be.

“Terri opened her eyes. She watched us. Then she picked up her glass. ‘Here’s to you guys,’ she said. ‘Here’s to all of us.’ She drained the glass, and the ice clicked against her teeth. ‘Carl, too,’ she said, and put her glass back on the table. ‘Poor Carl. Herb thought he was a schmuck, but Herb was genuinely afraid of him. Carl wasn’t a schmuck. He loved me, and I loved him. That’s all. I still think of him sometimes. It’s the truth, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Sometimes I think of him, he’ll just pop into my head at any old moment. I’ll tell you something, and I hate how soap opera a life can get, so it’s not even yours anymore, but this is how it was. I was pregnant by him. It was that first time he tried to kill himself, when he took the rat poison. He didn’t know I was pregnant. It gets worse. I decided on an abortion. I didn’t tell him about it, either, naturally. I’m not saying anything Herb doesn’t know. Herb knows all about it. Final installment. Herb gave me the abortion. Small world, isn’t it? But I thought Carl was crazy at the time. I didn’t want his baby. Then he goes and kills himself. But after that, after he’d been gone for a while and there was no Carl anymore to talk to and listen to his side of things and help him when he was afraid, I felt real bad about things. I was sorry about his baby, that I hadn’t had it. I love Carl, and there’s no question of that in my mind. I still love him. But God, I love Herb, too. You can see that, can’t you? I don’t have to tell you that. Oh, isn’t it all too much, all of it?’ She put her face in her hands and began to cry. Slowly, she leaned forward and put her head on the table.

Laura put her food down at once. She got up and said, ‘Terri. Terri, dear,’ and began rubbing Terri’s neck and shoulders. ‘Terri,’ she murmured.”

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“May Day,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“‘Don't see any liquor here,’ said Peter reproachfully.

The waiter became audible but unintelligible.

‘Repeat,’ continued Peter, with patient tolerance, ‘that there seems to be unexplained and quite distasteful lack of liquor upon bill of fare.’

‘Here!’ said Dean confidently, ‘let me handle him.’ He turned to the waiter --’Bring us --bring us --’ he scanned the bill of fare anxiously. ‘Bring us a quart of champagne and a --a --probably ham sandwich.’

The waiter looked doubtful.

‘Bring it!’ roared Mr. In and Mr. Out in chorus.

The waiter coughed and disappeared. There was a short wait during which they were subjected without their knowledge to a careful scrutiny by the head-waiter. Then the champagne arrived, and at the sight of it Mr. In and Mr. Out became jubilant.

‘Imagine their objecting to us having champagne for breakfast --jus' imagine.’

They both concentrated upon the vision of such an awesome possibility, but the feat was too much for them. It was impossible for their joint imaginations to conjure up a world where any one might object to any one else having champagne for breakfast. The waiter drew the cork with an enormous pop --and their glasses immediately foamed with pale yellow froth.

‘Here's health, Mr. In.’

‘Here's same to you, Mr. Out.’

The waiter withdrew; the minutes passed; the champagne became low in the bottle.

‘It's --it's mortifying,’ said Dean suddenly.

‘Wha's mortifying?’

‘The idea their objecting us having champagne breakfast.’

‘Mortifying?’ Peter considered. ‘ Yes, tha's word --mortifying.’

Again they collapsed into laughter, howled, swayed, rocked back and forth in their chairs, repeating the word ‘mortifying’ over and over to each other --each repetition seeming to make it only more brilliantly absurd.

After a few more gorgeous minutes they decided on another quart.”

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“Just a Little One,” by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker, the last word on wit, was a notorious lush who only had to record her own speech to file such a deft report on the night’s descent into drunken gibberish. After the narrator goes into a speakeasy with “Fred” and orders a highball—“just a little one”—by my count, five times, and I’m sure they were anything but little, she ends up pleading for a pet.

“Ah, don’t be stuffy about it, Fred, please don’t. I need a horse, honestly I do. Wouldn’t you like one? It would be so sweet and kind. Let’s have a drink and then let’s you and I go out and get a horsie, Freddie—just a little one, darling, just a little one,”

“The Wine Menagerie,” by Hart Crane

William Faulkner wrote while always keeping his whiskey within reach, and he might have learned it from Hart Crane. Crane, like his singularly brazen poetry, was almost unique among poets—that most Dionysian of species—for preferring to write while actually drunk. He would slip away in the middle of parties to compose. Drink eventually ravaged him, but through the years it’s no wonder that Crane’s rapturous recklessness resembled the chaos of an endless bacchanal. Here are some lines from “The Wine Menagerie,” his ode to the generative alchemy of alcohol.

“Invariably when wine redeems the sight,

Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,

A leopard ranging always in the brow

Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.

Then glozening decanters that reflect the street

Wear me in crescents on their bellies.

Slow Applause flows into liquid cynosures:

—I am conscripted to their shadows’ glow…

…Until my blood dreams a receptive smile

Wherein new purities are snared; where chimes

Before some flame of gaunt repose a shell

Tolled once, perhaps, by every tongue in hell.

—Anguished, the wit that cries out of me:”

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“Morning of Drunkenness,” by Arthur Rimbaud (translated by John Ashberry)

The “infant Shakespeare,” as Victor Hugo called him, embodied the very spirit of chaos. One only has to reach the end of this prose poem to know what I mean.

“Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, austerity of virgins, horror in the faces and objects of today, may you be consecrated by the memory of that wake. It began in all loutishness, now it’s ending among angels of flame and ice.

Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask with which you gratified us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.

Behold the time of the Assassins.”

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"Lucky Jim," by Kingsley Amis

No survey of literary drunkenness would be complete without a mention of at least one member of the Amis family. Papa Amis more or less invented the modern English comic novel with Lucky Jim, but today it’s remembered for perhaps the greatest words ever written on what exactly it is like to be hungover.

“He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

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“Sonnet CXXXIX,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay, who was five-foot-one and a hundred pounds, was nevertheless a towering poet, one of the greatest sonneteers. She also pumped herself with an unfathomable amount of morphine and alcohol. In her “sober” period she lowered her daily liquor dosage to a liter and a half of wine. She died, at 58, after a night of working late and drinking hard, and reportedly pitched down a flight of stairs and broke her neck. Beside her head was a notebook that contained the draft of a poem, and she had circled the last three lines:

"I will control myself, or go inside.

I will not flaw perfection with my grief.

Handsome, this day: no matter who has died."

Here is her “Sonnet CXXXIX”:

"I must not die of pity; I must live;

Grow strong. not sicken; eat, digest my food,

That it may build me, and in doing good

To blood and bone, broaden the sensitive

Fastidious pale perception: we contrive

Lean comfort for the starving, who intrude

Upon them with our pots of pity; brewed

From stronger meat must be the broth we give.

Blue, bright September day, with here and there

On the green hills a maple turning red,

And white clouds racing in the windy air!—

If I would help the weak, I must be fed

In wit and purpose, pour away despair

And rinse the cup, eat happiness like bread."

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"King Henry IV, Part One," by William Shakespeare

Was Falstaff a coward, morally repugnant? There are critics who’ll leap to Sir John’s defense, including the great A. C. Bradley, who rightly makes the case that the essence of Falstaff is not to moralize, to “walk about free and rejoicing.” Was he a fool? Harold Bloom would wager his life that Sir John had the very genius of Shakespeare himself. But one thing is for sure: Falstaff was a drunkard, and the most glorious one in all of Western literature, an absolutely inexhaustible keg.

A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! marry, and  amen!—  Give me a cup of sack, boy.—Ere I lead this life long, I'll sew  nether-stocks, and mend them and foot them too. A plague of all  cowards!—  Give me a cup of sack, rogue.—Is there no virtue extant? 

Didst thou never see Titan kiss a dish of butter? pitiful-hearted butter, that melted at the sweet tale of the Sun! if thou didst, then behold that compound.

You rogue, here's lime in this sack too: there is nothing but roguery to be found in villainous man: yet a coward is worse than a cup of sack with lime in it, a villanous coward.—Go thy ways, old Jack: die when thou wilt, if manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face  of the Earth, then am I a shotten herring. There live not three good  men unhang'd in England; and one of them is fat, and grows old: God help the while! a bad world, I say. 
I would I were a weaver; I could sing psalms or any thing. A plague of all cowards! I say still."