Drunk Dialer’s Ballad: Drinking in 20th Century American Short Fiction




The following is a feature article from the Spring 2014 edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal. To pick up your copy of the Journalbecome a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.

¤

I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hidin’ out in the big city blinkin’
What was I thinkin’ when I let go of you?

— Wilco

EVEN BEFORE I became acquainted with Raymond Carver, I was living “Carver moments.” Drinks in hand. Mute appeals. Outrageous tantrums. Loving embraces. Backseats. Rites of passage. Heartbreaks and meltdowns. So when I discovered him at last in my mid-20s (a truly late literary bloomer) at the height of my debauchery and hungover from an endless series of fuzzy-tongued, emotionally rabid, makeshift symposia, depressed and aimless, trying to understand the nature of heterosexual American romance, I was immediately touched. The dialogues and locations of Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, drenched in cloying American ideals and awkward backwoods-cum-city romanticism: they nestle heavy in me.

So I continue to imbibe (booze and writing) and seek others for rituals of communal drinking and speech. Symposia were born with the first ancient fermentations, scholarly drinking parties for aristocratic Greek males, and over time they have evolved, expanding to include women and youth. Symposia are now completely promiscuous. I’ve found them in squats, dorms, woods, mansions, bars, garages, slums, corners, diners, alone, and, of course, in the imagination.

Drinking is a hand-me-down legacy. Like so many progeny of the last century, I too was the spawn of multibarreled alcoholism and all it entails. Love, sex, and family, in my America, are inextricably linked with the bottle — and so, it turned out, were many of the writers and stories that spoke most clearly to our experience. We enable one another, these authors and I, fascinated by the way drink shapes narrative paths, its implicit gravity, and how one tipple over the line can change the entire course of a life. So let us roam the halls of literary libation and learn how the dram can symbolize and be atomized. Stated succinctly by the drink-master F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

Ethanol (C2H5OH), this quiet central figure, on the rocks or straight up, is the driving force behind so many infamous, potent, and beautiful scenes in American literature. I invite you to marvel at all the dram can do. Scouring American short story compilations for any signs of drinking, I discovered that the “wet passages” held hands, in almost every instance, with notions of love. Love and drink — this duo achieves narrative fury and drunken propulsion in the economical span of a few pages. The liquid’s simple narcotic composition allows for everything. It enables our protagonists to abandon all logic; it is a signifier that signals more than itself.

Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Yates have produced some of the deftest portraits of modern men and women under the influence. In the stories treated here, alcohol acts as a structural propellant, plot shaker, dialogue un-shackler, character unfolder. Booze, as a loaded referent, reduces the need for the stories to justify human activities that look, taste, smell, sound, and, of course, feel like madness; if one is drinking, one is in essence “acting,” one is allowed to be mad, sickly, deranged, pensive, unyielding, amorous, and erotic.

Humans drink to amplify and dim the noise that resides in them. D. M. Thomas, in his study of “drunkards” in English fiction, identifies a binary trope of intoxication and asks whether intoxication transforms the drinker into something new, in the vein of Jekyll and Hyde, or just demonstrates something essential about his character, as in “in vino veritas.” This question will be dealt with in the following stories, which each illuminate a different aspect of inebriation. Now I pass the cup to them, as steady in their hands we dance —

 

Raymond Carver’s “Gazebo”

Sometimes, in the brilliant light cast by some trivial circumstance and swept away by the reverberations the incident has provoked, I suddenly see myself caught in the trap, immobilized in an impossible situation (site): there are only two ways out (either … or) and they are both barred: nothing to be said in either direction. Then the idea of suicide  saves me, for I can speak it (and do not fail to do so): I am reborn and dye this idea  with the colors of life, either directing it aggressively against the loved object  (a familiar blackmail) or in fantasy uniting myself with the loved object in death.

— Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments

Carver’s “Gazebo” begins with a searing, decadent, and erotic image of alcohol in action — a portrait of two young lovers eking out a failed but decadent American dream as motel proprietors, halted and haunted on their way to “better things”:

That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.

The leap from hedonistic pleasure to a bluntly relayed suicidal impulse is only justified by the placement of the whiskey within the first sentences of this narrative. The woman, Holly, is hysterical and manic. She is presumably intoxicated or perhaps caught in the depressive spiral of detoxification. The man, Duane, is privy to this, but not surprised, gauging by his matter-of-fact recount of the morning’s events. In this we assume that he holds some knowledge as to the cause, and that, in fact, he knows intuitively that he is the cause.

Their brand of whiskey, “Teachers,” is named for the inventor of said whiskey — William Teacher, who opened the first famous “dram shop” in 1856 — but here the word “Teachers” may be taken literally as a revelatory ointment, something to be shared, something that is expected to lead the imbibers to discussion, salvation, revelations, decisions, debates, rebukes, and, finally, new knowledge.

What the lovers learn and acknowledge is that they must “go.” They must leave because Duane has breached the amorous contract — Holly cannot reconcile or forgive his sexual infidelities with the motel maid. They are being guided reluctantly toward abandonment of the room in which they stay — their hideout, womb, cup, tumbler, or cave — into the open. They are driven toward exposure and sobriety, a thing they were collusively denying. Carver’s dialogue is always capped with the verbals “[…] I go” or “[…] she goes.” The decisive last line in the story is delivered with minimalist declarative narration: “‘Duane,’ Holly goes. In this, too, she was right.”

Holly goes. They have gone. Gone from one another. Gone, gone on drink. The motel that they are responsible for is coming apart literally, and they are being undone psychically, in large part thanks to the Teachers. Too drunk to function, they are too psychically and physically crocked to survive:

I go, “Holly, this can’t continue. This has got to stop.” […] She goes, “Duane, this is killing me.”

They “go.” A spare way of imparting the knowledge that something is over or dead or gone. Carver believes that “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.” In “Gazebo” these are Teachers, a claustrophobic motel room, an open second-story window not jumped through, and the word “go.”

A toast to Holly and Duane:

“Lived in Bars” by Cat Power

We’ve lived in bars
and danced on tables
hotels, trains, and ships that sail
we swim with sharks
and fly with aeroplanes in the air
send in the trumpets
the marching wheelchairs
open the blankets and give them some air
swords and arches, bones and cement
the light and the dark of the innocent of men
we know your house so very well
and we will wake you once we’ve walked up
all your stairs […]

 

Yates’s Gluttony, Self-Aware Losers, and Domestic Dram(a)s

The Idea is always a scene of pathos which I imagine and by which I am moved; in short, a theater. And it is the theatrical nature of the Idea from which I benefit: this theater, of the stoic genre, magnifies me, grants me stature. By imagining an extreme solution (i.e., a definitive one; i.e., a definite one), I produce a fiction, I become an artist, I set a scene, I paint my exit; the Idea is seen, like a pregnant moment (pregnant = endowed with a strong, chosen meaning) of bourgeois drama: sometimes this is a farewell scene, sometimes a formal letter, sometimes, for much later on, a dignified reencounter. The art of catastrophe calms me down.

— Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

The Domestic Reprieve Drinkers Ceremony is a trope that occurs with pitch perfection in Richard Yates’s short story “A Glutton for Punishment” (1953). The central male figure, Walter Henderson, has come to realize that he excels at playing the part of the “good loser” — with romantic pride but not without natural anxiety. He is hyper-aware of the cinematic air that being a “failure” grants a man in modern American life. He has formed an identity as “a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse,” but at the same time is quite adept at rising above his failures, in a way that reassures him of his masculine “strengths” and resiliencies.

Early in the story we learn that Walter is going to be fired from his job, an event he suspects prior to its occurrence. When asked to resign, he exits with great control, never showing weakness or humiliation, both things he feels but cannot bear to express. He wanders the streets aimlessly considering options, makes a call about a possible job, falls into a reverie about his first romantic meeting with his wife, and stops in for a drink at a tavern. It is his intention to keep losing his job a secret from his wife to “spare her any worry.” He comes home anxious, aware of himself as the title character in a film about loss. After the chaos of his children’s dinners, bathing rituals, and noisy goodnights, he and his wife unwind in a minimalist enactment of “bourgeois drama,” a tragedy of an inescapable loneliness:

“Oh,” she said with a sigh. “Thank god that’s over. Now for a little peace and quiet.”

“I’ll get the drinks, honey,” he said, bolting to his feet. He had hoped his voice might sound normal now, but it still came out with echo-chamber resonance.

“You will not,” she commanded. “You sit down. You deserve to sit still and be waited on, when you come home looking so tired. How did the day go, Walt?”

“Oh, all right,” he said, sitting down again. “Fine.” He watched her measuring out the gin and vermouth, stirring the pitcher in her neat, quick way, arranging the tray and bringing it across the room.

[…] This bright cocktail mood was a carefully studied effect, he knew. […] She managed it well, and it was only rarely, looking very closely at her face, that he could see how much the effort was costing her.

Drinking cocktails in his home, he knows, is an affect, a sort of romantic sham or momentary reprieve from the painful but banal realities of his family’s survival. Cloaked in notions of marital bliss, the drinking ceremony has a cost; but still they entertain themselves with it and find a moment of peace, however false it may be. A sort of warm and fuzzy buzz plateau is reached:

The drink was a great help. The first bitter, ice-cold sip of it seemed to restore his calm, and the glass in his hand looked reassuringly deep. He took another sip or two before daring to look at her again, and when he did it was a heartening sight. Her smile was almost completely free of tension, and soon they were chatting together as comfortably as happy lovers.

The domestic ceremony — the striking anxiety and drama of his being fired, and his eventual admission of it — is cinematic, the setup central to his view of himself as a star in some saga of falling and rising. “The movie camera started rolling again. It came in for a close-up of his own tense face, then switched over to observe her movements as she hovered uncertainly at the coffee table.” This is mild inebriation. Anything beyond a few cocktails would result in a different type of story, a sloppy drunken climax, not fit for a story of a man who is perpetually in control. The narrator guards the man’s precious pride. And when Walter falls, he is still allowed to do so elegantly, only a little “gin befuddled,” in the final paragraph:

“Well, darling —” he began. His right hand came up and touched the middle button of his shirt, as if to unfasten it, and then with a great deflating sigh he collapsed backward into the chair, one foot sliding out on the carpet and the other curled beneath him. It was the most graceful thing he had done all day. “They got me,” he said.

Like a hero getting shot? That is the dramatic effect achieved when the buzz plateaus. Ceremonial inebriation allows the characters to find a reasonable escape — time for the male protagonist to sit down and reflect on the nature of partnership, manhood and womanhood, and in particular what it all looks like.

Pop historian Frederick Lewis Allen, who edited Harper’s magazine from 1923 to 1953, had this observation to share about American drinking culture during the period in which Yates wrote this tale of domestic gluttony: “It was better to be modern — everyone wanted to be modern — and sophisticated, and smart, to smash conventions and to be devastatingly frank,” Allen wrote. “And with a cocktail glass in one’s hand it was easy at least to be frank.”

Walter’s frankness in the end liberates him from his penchant for suffering. He is given revelation by a cocktail, his development powered through the cup. The cliché of drink as a truth serum: Walter takes the domestic chalice and changes the trajectory of his entire life. He leaps off the page from a sniveling, self-proclaimed master of failure, who as a nine-year-old boy “thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance,” into a man who will presumably learn to accept success and gain domestic honor.

A toast to Walter:

“I Believe in You” by Frank Loesser

You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet there’s that upturned chin and the grin of impetuous youth,
I believe in you, I believe in you.
I hear the sound of good solid judgment whenever you talk,
Yet there’s that bold, brave, spring of the tiger that quickens your walk,
I believe in you, I believe in you.
And when my faith in my fellow man all but falls apart,
I’ve but to feel your hand grasping mine, and I take heart,
I take heart to see the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet there’s that slam, bang, tang, reminiscent of gin and vermouth
Now I believe in you, I believe in you.

 

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Questions”

Sexual pleasure is not metonymic: once taken, it is cut off: it was the Feast, always terminated and instituted only by a temporary, supervised lifting of the prohibition. Tenderness, on the contrary, is nothing but an infinite, insatiable metonymy; the gesture, the episode of tenderness (the delicious harmony of an evening) can only be interrupted with laceration: everything seems called into question once again: return of rhythm — vritti — disappearance of nirvana.

— Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

In Joyce Carol Oates’s intimate tale “Questions” (1987), we are introduced to Ali, a 31-year-old film professor — a “full-blooded woman of some experience who liked to be ‘won.’” Ali has made a habit of self-medicating and “falling in” with men. In this boozy tale we revisit the narcissistic gaze — the identification of one’s sober, lovelorn, and drunken selves as cinematic:

Didn’t he imagine himself [Barry, Ali’s student and 20-year-old lover], as so many undergraduates did these days, as a performer in a film or video of his own life? As Ali, though not of his generation imagined herself, at times, an actress in a film of unknowable proportions? […] She dressed and behaved provocatively though she was an ardent feminist — “provocation” was simply her style, as meticulously observed as the styles of the great film directors whose work she admired.

Ali and Barry engage in “passionate talk.” In her view, their dalliance is “sporadic and whimsical.” So when she breaks off her arrangement with him, on what appears to be a whim, he does not protest, but acts out by attempting to overdose on pills.

Enter Barry’s father. He finds mention of Ali in Barry’s diary and phones her for a meeting to discuss his son’s health. She agrees. Oates quickly deposits them “off into the cocktail hubbub around them.” They are seen sharing cocktails in a hotel lounge, interestingly called the “Sojourner Inn” — as they “sojourn” in one another’s lives, strangers visiting one another in a muddled and bereft cocktail world. They are temporary residents in each other’s theater of confused intimacies, heading into a one-night stand, while Barry lies off in a comatose periphery, hovering above the narrative. The father, becoming loose-tongued, addresses the specter of his son:

After his second martini he began to speak with some bitterness. He accused himself of having let things slide in his family; of having neglected his only son. […] “Who else should I blame?” Mr. Hood said.

What follows is an interrogation of Ali’s relationship with Barry and the liquored lie that issues forth. In Yates’s “A Glutton for Punishment,” alcohol acts as a truth serum — here we see it have the opposite effect:

Over a third martini — Ali was having her second margarita, and it was reassuringly strong — […] Ali felt distinctly uncomfortable as if, now, her own interrogation had begun. She explained carefully that she had not known Barry that well.

A perfect wet lie. Barry’s father then asks her to dinner. Over more drinks, getting sloppy, he confides again, eliciting Ali’s sympathy: “Just so you know that,” he says, “when I say I’ve been a poor father, you’ll know I’m telling the truth.” His words are “just perceptibly slurred.” Ali’s false empathy — false because it occurs when she is high, but still not to be discounted — leads her to feel the man’s “self-loathing as if it were her own.” Drinkers often have a heightened propensity toward drunken, cinematic empathies:

Ali was suffused with emotion, ripe with it — her skin felt dewy, moist, warm. She was conscious of her rings glittering in the candlelight. She said impulsively, “We’re all guilty of behaving in ways we don’t like from time to time. We’re human after all.” She paused, smiling. She tried to imagine how she might look to Marcus Hood. “It’s the human condition — fallibility.”

Ali then proceeds to reveal her feelings of guilt. An exchange of intimacies leads to a moment when they sit, “staring at each other, silent for a long impassioned moment. Mr. Hood’s hand still lay, lightly, upon Ali’s arm. His lips moved; his words were nearly inaudible.” Oates then chooses to move Ali and Mr. Hood immediately and without explanation to Ali’s apartment — an amorous union is already inferred. They are drunk, guilt-laden, and adrift. Ali fixes more drinks. He further questions her role in Barry’s life, whether erotic journal entries regarding Ali were truth or fiction. “Fantasy,” she says, accompanied by this detailed action: “She swallowed a large mouthful of her drink and held the thick squat glass steady in both hands.” The drinking glass could be interpreted as a shield or veil. She must remain steady in her quest for amorous victory — a conquest she may not have been able to perform sober. Here is a narrative testament to drinks’ fabled ability to obliterate inhibition, heighten sexual desire, and, finally, shake up a plot:

Then, suddenly, with no warning, Mr. Hood was crying, Mr. Hood was broken and sobbing, gripping Ali in his arms. He was holding her so tight she was terrified her ribs might crack. She could hardly breath. She tried to push him away, saying, “Mr. Hood, please — You’re hurting me — Please —”

The climax that follows shows the drunkards’ emotionality and confused feelings:

They stumbled together like a drunken couple. Ali’s glass fell clattering to the floor. “You’re so good, so kind, you’re the one decent person,” Mr. Hood was saying extravagantly, burying his face in her neck, “— the one good decent person in my life. You’re so beautiful —” Ali, utterly astonished, tasted both panic and elation.

Mr. Hood is possessed by Jekyll-and-Hyde-like lapses of reason. His behavior is explained only by his intoxication. Oates has stirred our expectations, and we anticipate what he finally delivers with desperate violence (alas, also an attribute of drunkenness):

She tried to pry his fingers loose, tried without violence to disengage herself from him, but he held firm. His body seemed enormous, pulsing with misery and heat. He sobbed helplessly, in a virtual frenzy of desire, besotted, whispering, “— so good, so kind. So beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful woman —” Gripping her tight as a man drowning.

So Ali thought, as she’d so often thought, Why not?

Ali “wins.” Only the sobriety of morning invites the reader to reconsider the self-proclaimed “theater” of Ali’s life and its questionable consequences. Unlike Walter in Yates’s tale, Ali is not reformed. The closing lines suggest that she is destined to wander:

Should she give up entirely on the idea of sleep? She sees herself in that long brilliant tracking shot at the end of Bunuel’s Viridiana. All the cards have been dealt out but what do they say?

A toast to Holly and Mr. Hood:

“Lua” by Bright Eyes

I’ve got a flask inside my pocket
We can share it on the train
And if you promise to stay conscious
I will try and do the same
Yeah, we might die from medication
But we sure killed all the pain
But what was normal in the evening
By the morning seems insane

 

Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

Idea of suicide; idea of separation; idea of withdrawal; idea of travel; idea of sacrifice, etc.; I can imagine several solutions to the amorous crisis, and I keep doing so. Yet, however alienated I may be, it is not difficult for me to grasp, through all these recurrent notions, a single, blank figure which is exclusively that of outcome; what I live in such complicity with is the hallucination of another role: the role of someone who “gets out.” […] [T]he lover’s discourse is in a sense a series of No Exits.

— Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

In Ernest Hemingway’s vignette “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), we find ourselves at a rail station between Barcelona and Madrid on a hot, dry day. After a sparse description of the environment, the reader is hoisted into a drinking scene — a seemingly terse and shallow conversation between foreigners introduced as “the American and the girl.” Soon we are clued in to the fact that the girl is pregnant, and the reader is entering at their decision-making stage. Should they abort or not? The question is never bluntly stated — one way in which this story gains its remarkable gravity and depth.

In Catherine Murdock’s book entitled Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940, we learn that during the period in which “Hills Like White Elephants” is set, “Male and female rebels and rebel aspirants settled upon drinking as a symbol of, a behavior reflecting, individuality and liberation.” Cocktails and mixed-sex drinking epitomized the social changes experienced by young Americans in the 1920s.

Their dialogue begins after the man orders beer: “‘Dos cervezas,’ the man said into the curtain.” The word “cerveza” some say stems from Ceres, the Roman goddess of harvest, a notable choice of beverage given that our protagonists are conflicted about the girl’s fertility. After a brief and tense exchange regarding the hills — they are “white in the sun” and the “country was brown and dry”; the hills, like the couple, are exposed, bleached out, something dying between them; their “love” is dry — the girl turns her attention to the bead curtain separating them from the barmaid:

“They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”
“Anis del Toro. It’s a drink.”
“Could we try it?”
The man called “Listen” through the curtain. The woman came out from the bar.
“Four reales.”
“We want two Anis del Toro.”
“With water?”
“Do you want it with water?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. “Is it good with water?”
“It’s all right.”
“You want them with water?” asked the woman.
“Yes, with water.” […]

“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

Anis del Toro: the “Bull’s Anise.” Anise is a plant with “carminative and aromatic seeds,” and together with the near homophone anus, Anise is an off-center stand-in for the sex and seed component of this tale. A carminative relieves the gas, pain, and distension common to pregnancy. Anis del Toro, diluted with water and transformed to a milky whiteness, invests this brief narration and dialogue with what we might almost call a pregnancy of meaning, and as the music of Hemingway’s words filter through my head, I am struck with an impulse to exchange “absinthe” for “absence” or even “abstinence” — it as if Hemingway’s economy of words stimulates a reader’s keenest observation, estimations, and suppositions.

But what is Hemingway’s story without drink? The surety of the man and the girl’s evasive language, the languid reposes, slow speeches in the heat, the atmosphere of thick and mounting tension, the silent consequence of taking “poison” while pregnant. Would “Hills Like White Elephants” be quite the same story if “the American and the girl” took to conversing over café and té? In Marty Roth’s exploration of “the anatomy of intoxication” in Drunk the Night Before, he suggests that although the drinking and intoxication seem to “lurk below the threshold of signification”:

The Hemingway story is much more about drinking than it is about abortion or a tenuous, failing relationship, but given how signification operates, it may not be understood to be about drinking. As signifiers, alcohol and intoxication are culturally inhibited, both presemantic and presymbolic: they cannot enter a field of metaphoric reflection or cogent relationship. […] [T]here is a constant hum of alcoholic reference that should dominate all other indicators of meaning and yet can be apprehended only as cultural white noise.

She (who is eventually identified as Jig) orders another beer, and a circular conversation ensues. Jig is so frustrated at her partner’s repeated insistence that the abortion procedure is as easy as letting “the air in” and that everything will be “perfectly simple” when it is over, that she pleads, “Would you please please please please please please stop talking?” The word “please” is emphasized in several of the stories studied here. Beyond negotiation, beyond reason, there is no other recourse but to beg.

Jig’s final utterances offer no conclusion, no promises, and no vision of the future. She simply claims, “I feel fine. […] There is nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” The conversation is over, and all paths have been exhausted, beyond the hills and down the tracks, a monumental decision rests on her shoulders. The amorous jig is over.

A toast to the American and Jig:

“Barstool Mountain” by Moe Bandy

I’ve finally found a place where I can take it
all this loneliness you left behind.
On a mountain that’s no hill for a climber.
Just one step up, sit back and pour the wine.
I climb up on Barstool Mountain.
High above your world where there’s no pain.
And I’m the king of Barstool Mountain.
Pretending I don’t love you once again.
At closing time I step down off the mountain.
I’m strong enough to make it without you.
I know that I’ll be right back here tomorrow.
Too weak to sober up and face the truth.

 

Tobias Wolff’s “The Life of the Body”

Since I am guilty of this, of that (I have — I assign myself — a thousand reasons for being so), I shall punish myself, I shall chasten by body: […] devote myself to the study of some serious and abstract branch of learning. I shall get up early and work while it is still dark outside, like a monk. I shall be very patient, a little sad, in a word, worthy as it suits a man of resentment. I shall (hysterically) signify my mourning (the mourning which I assign myself) in my dress, my haircut, the regularity of my habits. This will be a gentle retreat; just the slight degree of retreat necessary to the proper functioning of a discrete pathos.

— Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

In Tobias Wolff’s classic “The Life of the Body” (1996), we are plunged into the heart of a 20th century moralist’s world. Wiley is a single, male high school teacher with a taste for “pet subjects” like “the commodification of humanity.” He is a lonely drinker, a heart-worn reject of amorous entanglements and, ultimately, a soused barfly beaten to a pulp on a cold sidewalk.

Wolff’s genius lies in the way he unfolds Wiley’s motivations, his heart’s revolutions, puts a drink in his hand and guides the reader through the character and toward an inspection of his or her own moral capacities. Why do we do the things we do, and how do we end up there? The story begins in a neighborhood watering hole, where Wiley meets a veterinarian named Kathleen. Wiley is lonely and obviously attracted to Kathleen, but she is not alone, and Wiley’s advances do not sit well with her male companion. An argument ensues, prompting the bartender to say, “Please be quiet.” (This is not the first of our tipsy protagonists that has been asked to “be quiet.”) Wiley grows belligerent.

The bartender ignored him. He went on talking in that soft voice of his. Wiley couldn’t follow everything he said, but he did hear words to the effect that he, Wiley, had been drinking hard all night and that they shouldn’t take him too seriously.

He has given himself permission to behave this way because he has been “drinking hard” — he behaves in a fashion befitting intoxication. He gets worse, and the bartender asks him to leave, under the threat of mild violence. Wiley’s not a fighter, for that would be crossing a moral boundary, and so he leaves.

Nothing like this had ever happened to him. He was an English teacher in a private high school. He lived alone. He didn’t go to bars much and almost never drank whisky. He liked good wine, knew something about it, but was wary of knowing too much. At night, after he’d prepared his classes, he drank wine and read nineteenth-century novels. […] His students were still young enough not to be captive to the lies the world told about itself; he could make a difference in the way they saw things.

We see how Wiley views himself — he is not a lush, but a productive citizen. Morally sound. Sophisticated. (He drinks only wine after all.) He is not a barfly. He never hits strong drinks like whiskey. But when he does, he’s transformed. Dislocated from the routine and propriety of his life, he wishes to be mad — mad but not alone. He is transformed into the reckless drunk dialer, hitting the buttons with his sweaty, shaking index finger, calling out to anyone in the darkness.

From his new perch in a bar across the street, he spies Kathleen and the “other male” exiting the bar. In a rush to catch her he tips over a chair, but stops to put it back right. Walking fast, he calls out to her:

“Kathleen!” […] “I love you, Kathleen.” He was surprised to hear himself say this, and then to say, as he stepped up on the curb, “Come home with me.”

Here we encounter intoxication as a gateway to “surprising” oneself, to acting in ways that escape logic and defer to impulse. Acting in ways he does not understand, Wiley reevaluates himself and unearths his own motivations and desires. He is revealed through drink to be the quintessential “thinking, lonely guy.” Meanwhile, Kathleen’s partner beats him up, leaves him bleeding and in pain.

He gets up and dusts himself off, but not before interrogating himself again:

There was broken glass in the street, glittering on the wet asphalt, and to see it at just this angle, so close, so familiar, so perfectly a part of everything that had happened to him, was to feel utterly reduced; and he knew that he would never forget this, being on his knees […]. He heard himself weeping, and stopped; it was a stagey, dishonest sound.

Again, our protagonist becomes an “actor” in his own drama; he has the capacity to see himself from the outside, as in a cinema or theater:

The men walked past him as if he wasn’t there, or as if he belonged there, in exactly that pose, as part of what they expected a street to look like.

On his way back home, he feels “exuberant, even exultant, as if he’d gotten away with something. Light and easy.” But this elation is short-lived; by the time he reaches his place, he is weak. He reviews his wounds in the mirror and feels “great tenderness for the person behind this lurid mask, as if it were not his face at all, but the face of a beaten child.” We have caught Wiley in his contemplative moment, his drunken reverie.

In a subplot that further illuminates Wiley’s character, we see him form a flirtatious relationship with a former student of his, Alice, who once had a scandalous liaison with Mac, his pal and fellow teacher, which ended in a legitimate marriage. Wiley harbors some romantic feelings for her, but would never cross that line and risk a breach of trust. At the same time, however, he is an alienated social drinker, seeking warmth and affection from other alienated social drinkers:

When they all went out to bars she sat beside him and leaned her head on his shoulder. She took sips from his drinks. She liked to dance, and when she danced with Wiley she moved right up close, […] a glass of wine, and then another, […] she would stretch out on the couch and rest her head in Wiley’s lap while Mac looked on benignly from the easy chair.

In “drink play,” even his friend’s lover is a possibility. Grappling with his desires and morals exhausts Wiley, and slowly his moral compass, initially so exact, becomes skewed. The final scene illuminates his quest for erotic and emotional liberty, completing his transformation from peaceful bachelor to amateur stalker. He haunts Kathleen by phone until she eventually warns him never to call her at work again:

Wiley liked the sound of that; it meant she assumed a future for them. […] [O]nce he got her listening there was no telling what might happen, because all he really needed was words, and of words, Wiley knew, there was no end.

Wiley has succumbed to a new kind of dream. The possibility of an amorous connection is kindled, however far-fetched, revealing a perverse faith in rhetoric. That lonely night in the bar has turned the course of his life. He views rejection as mere resistance — and it no longer presents a moral hurdle to him. He is giving up his bearings in exchange for the possibility of never having to be “alone” again — an ass in drunken love. Different strains of this “exchange” run through all of these stories. Getting soused is a trade-off: giving up morals and manners in the hope of finding love.

A toast to Wiley:

“Brahma Fear” (1974) by Jimmy Buffet

Drank a lotta whiskey
It gives me such a glow
It makes me quite immobile
But it lets my feelin’s show
And I’m somewhere below the spotlight
Somewhere below the ground
You dig deep enough you might find me
Find me and you’ve found my sound

 

Conclusion: Our Morning After

In an essay in The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, John W. Crowley has the following to say about the Modernists’ treatment of alcohol:

The avant garde reacted against the Victorian idea of “inebriation” by producing a literature that idealized intoxication as iconoclasm and lionized the drunk as an anti-“Puritan” rebel. A major element in such texts was the representation of excessive drinking as an inevitable response of the sensitive consciousness to the nightmarish human condition […] exposing the literariness of its alcoholic despair.

Human hunger for tactile experience, fleshly debauchery, decadent action, is part of what makes us who we are — in this way, we huddle for collective warmth. Currently, most mainstream discourses on drink and drinkers refuse to ponder drinking as a gift, a serum for ceremony, an occasion for togetherness, and a creative stimulant. Instead, they fixate on the dram as a tragedy of industrialization that calls for restriction, reform, and endless shaming. The negative dominates the discourse, as if such scolding was a bulwark against the instigating forces that push humans toward extreme self-exile, self-medication, and self-abasement. The crux of the problem is offered in this succinct Scottish proverb, “They speak of my drinking, but never think of my thirst.”

Why are we still suffering the consequences of puritanical girdles when there is poetry to be found? Have we perhaps failed to look past the stigma and see the advantages of altered states? There is a recuperative expanse before us. Real humanity. Real beauty. José Ortega y Gasset, observing the bacchanal paintings of Titian and Velázquez, notes a psychological shift:

Once, long before wine became an administrative problem, Bacchus was a god, wine was divine. […] Yet our solution is symptomatic of the dullness of our age, its administrative hypertrophy, its morbidly cautious preoccupation with today’s trivia and tomorrow’s problems, its total lack of the heroic spirit. Who has now a gaze penetrating enough to see beyond alcoholism — a mountain of printed papers loaded with statistics — to the simple image of twining vine-tendrils and broad clusters of grapes pierced by the golden arrows of the sun.

Yet there is a shimmering hope that art — “drunken art,” in this study — can affect spirit. Whatever forms an individual’s intoxication or “drunkenness” might take, may it amend the ill effects of our absence from one another? Baudelaire insisted that:

Wine heightens the power of the will […]. Wine encourages kindliness and good fellowship […]. Wine is the substance of Christian communion with God, and beer is the fluid stuff of social intercourse, the communion of human beings.

William James explores similar thoughts in his text The Varieties of Religious Experience:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the yes function in man.

Yes. Is it not time for artists to reevaluate love and the primal again, to access it in life and make truthful representations of it? Can we talk again? Make a humane art of our debauchery and foibles? I hope so.

¤

Caroll Sun Yang’s work has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, New World WritingMutha MagazineNecessary FictionMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Identity Theory.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT