Thursday, November 22, 2012

Chicken Soup for the Whiskey Soul: Top 5 Alcohol Books

As I was home for Christmas break of some college yesteryear, my mother admired the list of books I was asking for over the holidays and asked, "do you realize that all the authors you ever read were notorious drinkers?". Of course I did. Since a young age even, I have related to those whiskey souls: it started with Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan in high school, graduated to Kerouac and Hemingway in my literary collegiate days, and has presently become an ever-expanding bookshelf in my bedroom of alcohol-related books from all generations. I don't know what it says about me, but my own personality naturally gravitates towards those tales of seeking out the marrow of life in the whiskey hours of the morning, the soul-searching affliction of the whole process, and the introspection precipitated by the bottle.

1. Big Sur, Jack Kerouac. The sky may have been the limit for Kerouac, dubbed the first voice of the rebellious sixties generation after the American classic On the Road finally found success. A la Kurt Cobain, though, the most famous of the Beat Generation Writers seemed to struggle truly, rather than popularly, with demons in the face of success; unable to live up to the title "voice of a generation" that he had earned from legions of On the Road fans, Kerouac faced depression and alcoholism rather than happiness and sunshine in the wake of his life's greatest success. In one last attempt to find peace and sobriety, Kerouac headed west once more for the seclusion of the California pines on the Big Sur coast. He wouldn't make it much further.

Like it had many before him, the literary world lost a great writer to alcohol at far too young an age when Kerouac succumbed to cirrhosis. Big Sur, the writer's final literary mark of sorts, doesn't mince words. It is the frightening account of the final stages of alcoholism: deep-seated depression, mental deterioration, terrifying visions of the devil himself via delirium tremens, the tragic account of someone fighting in vain to beat the disease.

We never hear of the demises of most writers. There is no Hemingway story of his final years attempting to sober up or the days leading up to his suicide. There's no Hunter S. Thompson account of the battles that led him to the same fate. In that way, it is a tribute to Kerouac to have completed this work in the face of all his personal obstacles. In the same vein, however, perhaps it's best that Hemingway is remembered for his masculine days fishing, bull-fighting, or at war, rather than for his vulnerable days. Because in Big Sur, we get the tragedy come full-circle, and it's not pretty; it is the disheartening tale of how the cold world took the free-spirited hero America had come to love in On the Road and wore him down until he couldn't face it any longer.

2. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry. Though it's considered one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, this is one book you won't be studying in high school English classes. Which is a shame: the writing in this novel is second to none. The novel's main protagonist, an alcoholic British consul stuck in a tequila-fueled half-life in Mexico, envisions escaping it all by moving to a remote log cabin in the Vancouver woods - a vision to find peace and sobriety in the wildnerness eerily similar to Jack Kerouac's real-life attempt to do the same (see number 1 on this list). Lowry's description of the serenity of the Canadian woods is Hemingway-esque - the salmon in the creek, the scent of the pine needles underneath a tree, the crackle of the fire in the log cabin - and perhaps the greatest piece of descriptive writing I have ever read.

But alas, the novel is not all beauty. "Los Barrachones," (the drunkards) a painting of Medusa hurling drunkards' souls through the flames of hell, is more represenative of the novel as a whole. Our afflicted protagonist stares at the painting, torn between the alcohol demons telling him to take another swig of Mescal and his better judgment telling him to quit for good - a perfect metaphor for alcoholism in general. Of course the alcohol demons win in the novel, time after time, as the reader watches the tragedy unfold.

Although Under the Volcano is a work of fiction, the unfortunate reality is that in order to properly write about alcoholism, you have to go through it yourself. Under the Volcano was the only substantial writing Malcolm Lowry ever produced, largely because of the battles he fought with the bottle in his own life. And it's a shame, because for being the only novel Lowry really produced, Under the Volcano is a damned good one.

3. Leaving Las Vegas, John O'Brien. Two weeks after hearing that his novel Leaving Las Vegas would be made into a Hollywood movie (it's actually a great movie, in which Nicolas Cage nails the role of the alcoholic), O'Brien took his own life. John O'Brien's father claims that the novel was John O'Brien's suicide letter. Think about that. The novel is literally a suicide letter. That alone would make this novel awesome. But it's far more than that.

Unlike anything ever written, O'Brien's novel is a the written mantra of one trying to kill himself with the botlle. You didn't read that wrong. After losing his wife and job and will to go on, the main character in Leaving Las Vegas heads to Vegas to drink until the bottle gets him permanently. One scene that will forever be etched into my memories is when Cage's character wakes up in the middle of the night, violently shaking from a lack of alcohol in his system, and struggles to pour a bottle of vodka into his mouth. There is redemption in this story; the main character finds one last sliver of hope in the world when he falls in love with a Vegas stripper in an unholy yet feel-good meeting of souls. Unlike many popular alcohol stories, though, he isn't saved by God or a vision or even by the love he finds; he drinks himself to death.

4. A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley. We are always comparing ourselves to the men who came before us: to past generations, to our grandfathers, to our fathers. I'm sure there is something Freudian to it all but I'm too lazy to investigate or care about that. But I've given it a lot of thought myself; I even attempted at one time to write a story centered around the underlying theme of how my own generation (and the lack thereof of meaning in our generation) pales in comparison to the World War II generation of men, the men who fought in Korea, and the Vietnam generation that preceded us - and the ramifications of those resulting feelings of inadequacy.

 Frederick Exley had it worst than most. The son of a New York Giants running back, Exley struggled with the fate of being unable to live up to the image of his uber-succesful hero of a father. And how could he possibly? While some father's pass down their athletic prowess to their sons, all Exley got from his father was an addiction to football and an on-again, off-again relationship with booze, and a resulting stint at a mental institution. Fraught with self-loathing spilling from each page, A Fan's Notes may be the quintessential testament to the failed American dream.

5. The Tender Bar, JR Moehringer - If you're looking for a book about booze but without the evil side of booze, this is the book on this list that you should pick up. Like it did for me, the bar played a critical role in Moehringer's coming of age. Like it did for me, the bar contributed to some of the happiest moments of his young life and contributed to some of the lowest points as well. The Tender Bar is the classic tale of the neighborhood pub. It could be any American bar: the places where people looking to find themselves, people looking to marinate their own regrets in a glass of whiskey, people looking for love, and people not sure what they are looking for flock to on Friday and Saturday nights from Seattle to Boston.

Moehringer's book is a cautionary tale, as well. The Tender Bar is the tale of what has happened at pubs in Dublin and Boston and everywhere else for centuries. Men discover the bar, come back to the bar, come back to the bar again, fall into a routine with the bar, and sometimes - unwittingly - fall into a prison of routine with the bar. In those bars men fall into a monotonous half-life, as their lives become a repetition of simply going through the motions without stopping to admire the world outside the bar. Unlike the other writers/characters that comprise this list, Moehringer discovers this before it's too late - he escapes his bar, although many of his friends who occupied the barstools next to him do not.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Heroes Get Remembered, But Legends Never Die

In the wake of Denard's impending final game at the Big House this Saturday, the Michigan sports world is overflowing with tribute videos and fond stories of #16, all striking a resounding chord in my always sentimental nature. He doesn't know it, but me and him have been through a lot together. Not just through some good games and bad games, but he's been with me through my senior year, through graduation day, through a move to a new city, through a transition to post-grad life. I feel like I owe him. So I guess this is my tribute.

They come from quite different places, Denard Robinson and Zack Novak. The former hails from Deerfield Beach, Florida - a place where many young kids don't make it out alive - including Denard's own brother - a place where football is not just a game but a safe haven from gang-life, drugs, and a route to prison or the cemetery. In stark contrast, the latter hails from Chesterton, Indiana, one of those quiet Midwestern towns secluded from all those devilries corollary to a life in Denard's hometown.

Quite different places. But they share a special place adjacent to each other in my heart. Because despite their widely contrasting backgrounds, the two have a lot in common.

Neither Novak nor Robinson was recruited heavily out of high school. Most schools told Denard he could play defensive back for them, and few believed he could hack it as a quarterback at the next level. The same holds true for Novak. Undersized and self-admittedly lacking in great skill, Zack possessed but one college scholarship offer - from a small mid-major from his home in the Hoosier state, Valpraiso - when John Beilein came calling. Both were underdogs, long shots by all accounts.

And both Zack and Denard received more than their fare share of criticism while donning the Maize and Blue. Novak was constantly labeled a stepping stone in the grand scheme of Michigan basketball, merely a clog in the system until the real cavalry - the four and five star recruits - arrived to play basketball at Michigan. I constantly had to listen to my own college roommates poke fun at Novak, always insinuating that he wasn't any good. The critique was even more pointed for Denard. His ability to throw was perpetually under question, from both the national media and from his own supposed fans, despite statistically accounting for 90% of Michigan's offense at times. Most notably amongst his critics, Michigan State players took to the Twittersphere to mock and ridicule Robinson after an embarassing loss to Alabama.

Admirably, neither one ever fired back at their critics. Instead they chose to do their talking on the court or on the field. A la the infamous Mike Hart route, Denard could have easily hushed the Spartans who mocked him via tweet after beating them this year; he took the high road and never spoke a word about the incident.  Novak never complained either. Not once did he comment on how he was always paired against oversized power forwards, he simply went out and played his heart out.

Perhaps the similarity between the two closest to my heart is their roles in the respective resurgences of Michigan football and basketball. But I think my fondness for these two Michigan athletes stems from more than athletics.

I've been a Michigan fan for a long time. Players with more talent than either Zack or Denard have come and gone time and again. I've watched the Charles Woodson's and Tom Brady's and Manny Harris' and Braylon Edwards' of the Michigan world come and go, yet none of their departures affected me quite like the exits of Zack Novak and Denard Robinson.

I attribute that to the fact that these guys were my peers. (At least at one time) They walked the same diag on campus as I did, occupied the same lecture halls, went to the same pizza parlor's on weekends, and attended the same parties I did. I read about them in my student newspaper. I watched them with the college friends in my college house. I associated them with college, which was the best time of my life.

And maybe that's why I'm so sentimental about seeing them go. Because I associate them with college, their departures mean whatever lingering bonds I may have left to my alma mater will be permanently extinguished. More players will come to replace them, but those guys will be years younger than me, part of a different generation of Michigan student life. When I tell my grandkids about Zack and Denard, I won't just be looking back on athletics, I'll be remembering my own experiences in college.

Thanks for everything #0 and #16.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sports Days That Changed My Life, Volume II: August 26, 1995

Sometimes dates are inadequate; I think oftentimes in life we remember the different chapters in our lives not by the dates they occurred on but by the moments that defined those eras. Maybe you remember different time periods by the loss of a loved one, by a new relationship, an acceptance letter into a school, a new job, or a certain mistake. For me, many of the chapters of my life are not defined by dates, but by sporting events.

The peak of that unadulterated, blissful youth will always be equated with the '97 Michigan National Championship sandwiched in between back to back Hockeytown Stanley Cups, perhaps the Indian Summer of my life. The Day Bo died and the subsequent loss to Ohio State that following day, spoiling a perfect season my freshman year: the first real onset of adulthood. Chris Osgood's 2008 Stanley Cup: the epitome of the golden years of college. The 2011 New Year's Day Gator Bowl, when Al and I drank too much and Michigan got mauled by Mississippi State in the final days of the Rich Rod era: maybe my first heartfelt realization that college was truly over, in more ways than one.

August 26, 1995

My memories of the pre-August 26, 1995 era of my life are scattered. There are flashes of moments - the playgrounds, Happy Meals, digging up worms, art projects overflowing with glue, the cartoons - but there is no definite timeline in my memory. In my own head, the timeline of my life begins on that late summer day in 1995 just prior to my first day of second grade, and the timeline is marked by each subsequent fall Saturday thereafter.

I imagine the day started much in the way most Saturday's did for me back then. Waking up in my bunkbed, chowing down on some Lucky Charms, some Saturday morning cartoons, maybe a little Gameboy action. My dad was taking me to Michigan Stadium that day for my first game. I wasn't particularly excited for the game, but I wasn't disappointed either. It was just something I was doing, like going with my mom to the grocery store.

On the way to the game I didn't pay attention to the sports radio dad was listening to. I didn't know Scott Dreisbach would be starting at quarterback that day, and I didn't know I would be part of the largest crowd in America in just a couple hours. I pointed out the horses and the cows on the farms on the way to Ann Arbor.

I only remember select things for the first 3 and 1/2 quarters of that football game against Virginia. I remember the throngs of people, and having to hold my dad's hand so as not to get lost among the sea of maize and blue. I remember the novelty of peeing into a trough amongst a bunch of old men. I remember it was extremely hot as the sun beat down on us while we sat on those metal bleachers. And I remember it being difficult to see over the taller heads in front of me when people stood to cheer.

Things truly changed in those finals seconds. As Scott Dreisbach connected with Mercury Hayes in the endzone to complete an improbable comeback - one of the marquee plays of Michigan history and the first chapter of Michigan's Lloyd Carr-era - fandom came into focus in my life. For the first time that day, I heard the Michigan fight song trumpeted from the marching band, I smiled and cheered in unison with my section, and most importantly, I felt like I belonged with the rest of the crowd. There was no looking back.

On the ride home from Ann Arbor, the cows and horses passed by unnoticed. Instead, I listened intently to the sports radio, in disbelief that the radio hosts were talking about the game that I was just at. I peppered my dad with questions: 'what was the quarterback's name again?'; 'who were we playing next week?'; 'could we go to another game soon?'.

Saturday morning's were different after that. Cartoons and coloring books seemed to me mere child's play in those following weekends; they were promptly replaced by a morning ritual of dressing in my Michigan Dreisbach jersey, heading out into the backyard where I tossed the football to myself or to my dad - always re-creating that Dreisbach to Mercury Hayes reception, going over the roster in my program once more to study the names and numbers, and religiously plopping myself in front of the television to watch that day's game.

Things would never be the same.