Reading, writing and beverages: a Prairie Dog special report
Feature | by Chris Scott
The sauce, the hooch, the Devil’s punchbowl, the 12 ounce curl… writers have more nicknames for alcohol than old-timey sailors had for gettin’ lucky. And why not? Booze and writing are inextricably linked, and lots of great writers were either alcoholics or alcoholic-curious. Makes sense: writing is harrrd and looonely; that blank page (er, monitor) stares at you and sometimes all you can do is procrastidrink. Who are we to judge?
So pour yourself something good (bonus points for local brews and spirits) and let’s stagger together through a few classic 40-proof books, and, rumour has it, one very pickled magazine.
CHARLES R. JACKSON: THE LOST WEEKEND
Do you hallucinate about rats and bats too? Written in 1944, this is still the mic drop of alcohol abuse novels. The story of a talented but over-refreshed scribe was based on the author’s own experiences and turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Ray “Sire Uri” Milland. In 1936 writer Don Birnham goes on a five-day bender, stealing a woman’s purse and pawning his typewriter to get more of the good stuff. He ends up in an alcoholic ward, but like a lot of lucky male rummies, finds a good woman with questionable priorities willing to turn him around. What the movie omitted were the novel’s hints that Birnham, like his creator Jackson, was a closeted gay man driven to drink by his secret.
PATRICK HAMILTON: 20,000 STREETS UNDER THE SKY
Patrick Hamilton wasn’t just an alcoholic writer — he also has a syndrome named after one of his plays: “gaslighting”, the psychological abuse technique in which lies and tricks make victims doubt their own perceptions. As well as authoring the Hitchcock-adapted Rope, Patrick penned a trilogy of books — The Midnight Bell (1929), The Siege of Pleasure (1932) and The Plains of Cement (1934) — focusing on three people in London’s Midnight Bell pub. The first book in particular contains autobiographical elements — Hamilton worked in bars, was in love with a prostitute and eventually died of liver failure as a result of his drankin’. You could also try Hangover Square (1941), his black comedy about alcoholism, split personalities and fascism (not necessarily in that order).
HUNTER S. THOMPSON: THE RUM DIARY
Most of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms MVP’s works deal with overconsumption. Written in 1960 but not published until 1998, it was discovered among Thompson’s papers by Johnny Depp. An autobiographical novel about his days as a sports writer in Puerto Rico for The San Juan Daily Star, “Paul Kemp” writes tourist pieces and dreams of more. He lives with another drinky writer, gets into trouble with the locals and always finds his solutions in the bottle. Filmed in 2011 starring Depp (but of course), it was also notable for introducing Johnny to the future ex-Mrs. Depp, Amber Heard.
CHELSEA HANDLER: ARE YOU THERE, VODKA? IT’S ME, CHELSEA
This is feminist comedian/compulsive oversharer (you pick) Chelsea Handler’s 2008 book about her bad decisions, er, life. The title is a satire of Judy Blume’s bestselling kids novel, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. The unbeatable combination of alcohol and one night stands is a recurring theme, and it includes a chapter on sex with a little person. NBC turned it into a TV series in 2011 starring Laura Prepon. You have to give Handler props, though; her works regularly top the bestseller lists. It’s the sequel to My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands and was followed by Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang.
LILLIAN ROTH: I’LL CRY TOMORROW
Is your life so miserable it wins someone an Oscar? Susan Hayward took home the gold in 1955 for starring in the movie based on the sob story, er, life of actress Lillian Roth, who was stage managed by her parents to the point of alcoholism. Her dependence on other people led to five disastrous marriages, one to a sailor she didn’t even remember (!), and she met her last husband, Thomas Burt McGuire, at an AA meeting. He managed her career until September 1963, when he sent her a note stating their marriage was over. Oh, and that he had left her penniless after withdrawing all the money from their joint account. But hey, at least she got to be in a Marx Brothers movie!
CHARLES BUKOWSKI: PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING
Yes, of course, Bukowski is on this list. Are you happy now? Former mail clerk/full time alcoholic Bukowski (born in Germany) used the social/cultural/economic ambiance of Los Angeles for the adventures of his alter ego, Henry Chinaski. In the 1960s, after the death of his lover Jane Cooney Baker, an alcoholic 11 years his senior with an immense beer belly, he threw himself into writing and in 1969 Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin offered him $100 a month for life to quit the post office and write full time for them. Pick any book, any poem or just watch Barfly.
MODERN DRUNKARD MAGAZINE
If you want to scare the hell out of your family, get a subscription to this magazine. Six glorious full-colour issues a year are devoted to two-fisted drinking culture, but if you’re a coward you can check it out online at drunkard.com. Founded in 1996 by Frank Kelly Rich (who also writes the pulpy Jake Strait novels), it’s humorously devoted to “the functional alcoholic” and, true to its roots, apes the style of 1950s “men’s action” mags. Staff are allowed to drink (and smoke) on the job and provided with a bar and a fridge containing beer. It has tons of cool merch and its first convention, in 2004 in Las Vegas (“The Best Time You’ll Never Remember”), broke the casino’s record for the amount of money brought in at a bar during a private event. Besides, what other organization sells DRINKING FEZZES? ❧
Chris Scott is Prairie Dog’s hardest-reading contributor. She’d love to hear about your favourite beverage-y books — let her know in the comments below.