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.


  1. Surprised Bukowski is completely left off the list. I also would have added the Rum Diary

  2. I was gonna add Bukowski as honorable mention. But Bukowski is never tragic, which I guess is what I was going for.