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The Drinking Writer and the Drinking Protagonist

Earlier this year I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, a meditation on why writers drink. While being a very uneven book – more time was spent on Tennessee Williams than on Berryman, Carver and Cheever combined – it was a fascinating look at the American greats, what made them tick and what made them drink.

As an afterthought, I wondered which of the great writers wrote themselves into their novels; the drunk portraying the drunk. While doing my research I found it very difficult to place a female writer in this context. There have been plenty of female writers with unhealthy relationships with alcohol — Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Maeve Brennan, Patricia Highsmith, Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker and other s—but they didn’t seem to portray the drinker in their work to quite the same extent as the men. If I’m wrong, please send me your comments. I’d be very interested.

Though Tennessee Williams has his Brick Pollitt, he also has most of The Trip to Echo Spring, so I’ve left Cat on a Hot Tin Roof off this list (for the same reason Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is not mentioned below). Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Chandler and Joyce had drunks everywhere in every book, but no solid singular portrayal. There’s a whole raft of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, who relied most heavily on chemicals rather than drink, so I’ll save those for another article.

Leaving Las Vegas

The Oscar-winning film from 1995 about an alcoholic who decides to drink himself to death in Vegas is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by John O’Brien. O’Brien had been an alcoholic since his late teens and had been on and off the wagon when he wrote the book. After it was published, to some acclaim, O’Brien went back to drinking full-time and disappeared for days at a time on binges. He was once found in an L.A. hotel room surrounded by empty vodka bottles just like his protagonist Ben. His demise was nothing remotely romantic like in the film, with a beautiful, loving woman by his side. In fact, O’Brien was in the midst of a prolonged period of mental and physical decline, had cut off everyone he knew and was drinking himself to death, alone. Unable to escape the net he’d cast for himself, he finally ended his life with a shotgun after discovering his book was to be adapted for the screen. A tragic loss.

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Under the volcano

Lowry’s book is, infamously, a very difficult novel to get into. It’s something to do with the rather terse, dense prose akin, in a way, to some of Woolf’s or Joyce’s stuff. Set on the Day of the Dead, it follows the Consul, an alcoholic Englishman living in Mexico and spiralling out of control after the breakdown of his marriage. This isn’t a case of a drink here and there, this is visceral stuff here documenting full-on deranged alcoholism, with the protagonist’s pores oozing acid booze throughout as he tries to control the tremors. Much like the real-life Lowry, a man who was once found by his wife passed out naked on the floor of a brothel after selling all his clothes for booze, the protagonist here is a wildly delusional and uncontrollable drunk and every page is consumed with his raw, clutching, clawing drunkenness. Accident or suicide, Lowry died aged 47 from the intake of drink and drugs.

Collected Stories

Cheever was a wonderful writer and certainly one of the most gifted short-story writers of all time. Collected Stories is magnificent and “The Swimmer” is a standout classic (and was made into a rather good film with Burt Lancaster). Cheever often mentions alcohol in his shorts but in “The Swimmer” the central character, Neddy, decides one balmy evening to leave his friend’s pool and delve into the pools of the surrounding neighbours, one by one, as he makes his way home. At each pool/garden he is greeted with drinks and one by one, drinks and pools and parties, everything around him eventually combines to create, in my opinion, a dark existential and metaphorical journey. A great chronicler of suburbia and the life of the norm, Cheever’s own life however was blighted by self-loathing and alcoholism. In his posthumous letters – extracts of which were published in the New Yorker back in 1990 – Cheever comes across as a lonely, guilt-ridden man. He had kept his homosexuality a secret all his life.

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Disturbing the Peace

I, like a lot of people, only read the novel Revolutionary Road after I’d seen the film (both of which are excellent, though I’m not sure the former has aged very well). Certainly, Yates is a masterful writer with an excellent grasp of both dialogue and beautiful descriptive paragraphs. He wasn’t successful in his lifetime, however, and when he died, all of his books were out of print. Disturbing the Peace is not on the same level as Revolutionary Road, and in fact, it was considered a flop at the time, but I found it interesting in an autobiographical sense. Yates was a renowned drinker and it is the only book of his to directly address his failings, in this case immortalised through the eyes of John C. Wilder; adulterer, alcoholic and salesman. It is very much the fall and rise and fall of Wilder as he struggles again and again, and finally finds hope, only for it to be dashed to pieces.

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You Only Live Twice

Fleming. Bond. Alcohol. We make light of James and his casual slugs because he’s just that; so casual, so charming and so effortlessly cool. I doubt Fleming was this cool in reality (he certainly didn’t look it), but he projected the good and the bad onto Bond. It has been recorded that in You Only Live Twice – in which Bond spirals into depression – he tips back 220 alcoholic beverages, making it Bond’s booziest outing in the series. In reality, Fleming was a miserable alcoholic, consuming a bottle of gin or bourbon a day, drowning out the nightmares of war, and dying by the time he was 56.

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Big sur

Kerouac’s entire life can be seen across the span of his novels. The Town and the City and On the Road had a natural youthful energy to them. They framed a picture of a time, a place and a scene forming where everyone involved was unstoppable, invincible. Be they pseudonymous or otherwise, Burroughs is there, Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Neal Cassady. Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angel are all semi-biographical and always incorporate his long list of pals, burning across America with its jazz and drink and drugs and women. All ending with his last great novel Big Sur; a short, melancholy, inward gaze. At the time of writing Kerouac was battling severe alcoholism and, pulling away from society and the public, he boarded himself away in poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur. Though he still writes in his typical semi-fictitious manner, it is a masterful, delicately written and honest portrayal of a life well lived. He would die seven years later.

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Post Office

Bukowski was destined for greatness, of some kind. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan, but his full-on confessional prose has to be respected. He tears down and reassembles the mundanity of life with such ease, philosophising and fighting and fucking all the while. The man wallowed at the lower levels of life and loved every minute of it. Through the eyes of Bukowski, Henry has seen and done it all; mail carrier, writer, barfly, womanizer, pulp hero, anti-hero and protagonist of nine works by Bukowski. Much like Charles, Henry is an appalling drunk and a sneering cynic, laughing at and pissing on the world. Any of his books can conjure up the awfulness of his life, but for the best alcohol-soaked examples try this one or Factotum.

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Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More