Home » Fiction

A Drink-Man Among Drink-Men

By (December 1, 2008) One Comment

Everyday Drinking

By Kingsley Amis
Bloomsbury USA, 2008

Kingsley Amis earned special distinction among the long list of authors whose enthusiasm for alcohol suggests an unbreakable bond between writing and drinking. James Joyce, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Edgar Allan Poe, Malcolm Lowry, Philip Larkin and countless others combined the two, but Amis stands unrivaled for the intensity with which he blended the pursuits. While all those named in the preceding sentence to some extent worked alcohol into their writing, Amis saw the consumption of alcohol and the production of literature as cross-pollinating and concentrated on drinking as his recurring subject in both fiction and nonfiction. Of course, he may have done all this simply to justify having another drink.

Poet and critic (and friend of the Amis family) Clive James sees alcohol as providing talented writers with release and relief from the demands of their craft. In Cultural Amnesia, he explains: “The main reason a good writer needs a drink at the end of the day is the endless, finicky work of disarming the little booby traps that the language confronts him with as he advances.” (He does not bother with the other writers – the mediocre or even bad ones – who might want to drink during pauses in their literary campaigns. Perhaps only “good” ones deserve that single reward each evening.) In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis tries to understand his father Kingsley’s commitment to drinking and comes to a similar conclusion: “A writer’s life is all anxiety and ambition – and ambition, here, is not readily distinguishable from anxiety; it is a part of your desire to do right by what talent you have. So some of us will be wanting a break from that, if we can manageably get it.” Explanations like these have undeniable merit but could, with only slight modification, apply to scrupulous strivers in any field.

If James and Martin Amis do not get to the essential reason why so many writers drink, they do at least capture many author-drinkers’ routines. Joyce, for instance, only drank at night. “He engaged in excess with considerable prudence,” biographer Richard Ellmann maintains. For Joyce, drinking combined “purpose and relaxation,” allowing him to watch how people behaved and hear how they talked (which he would later make use of in his work), to discuss his anxieties with friends, and “to forget his troubles and circumvent his reticences.” Critical reaction to his work caused some of the worry from which he sought temporary reprieve after dark. Discouraged by the responses he received after showing early drafts of Finnegans Wake to uncomprehending friends and unsure if his worsening health would allow him to finish it, Joyce considered enlisting a co-author. Whiskey factored in his evaluation of candidates. He thought of recruiting James Stephens in part because he liked that the book’s cover could prominently display their overlapping initials as JJ&S, which happened to be how his favorite brand, John Jameson and Sons, was commonly known.

Both Joyce and Amis associate drinking with conversation, whether with acquaintances or with strangers. “What is better than to sit at the end of the day and drink wine with friends, or with substitutes for friends?” Joyce once asked fellow writer Padraic Colum. In Everyday Drinking, Amis admits dreading the prospect of meeting strangers but says he almost always ends up having a pleasant time. “The reason why I, and so many others, usually turn out to enjoy meeting such creatures is simply and obviously the co-presence of drink,” he writes. “The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober….”

Herman Melville – “among the most ardent lovers” of alcohol according to his biographer, Andrew Delbanco – similarly linked drinking with amiable conversing. In a letter, he advised his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne “to have ready a bottle of brandy because I always feel like drinking that heroic drink when we talk ontological heroics together.” (Samuel Johnson also associated brandy with the heroic. “He who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy,” he says, and Amis drops the line and many other comments on alcohol by famous authors into Everyday Drinking.) Beer, wine and spirits flow through Melville’s novels. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael ponders the “very large” quantity of beer stocked by an old Dutch whale ship. He admires the “high livers” aboard and draws this lesson: “if you can get nothing better out of this world, get a good dinner out of it at least. And this empties the decanter.” Melville thus simultaneously refers to writing – he calls the chapter he concludes that way “The Decanter” – and to drinking, which will be part of any good dinner. In Pierre, Cyrus the Great becomes Cyrus the Wise because of the epitaph he chose: “I could drink a great deal of wine, and it did me a great deal of good.” To ready oneself for future days of enforced abstinence, the narrator of White-Jacket promotes drinking prodigiously. He endorses the “wise example” of camels, which “drank for the thirst past, the thirst present, and the thirst to come.”

Norman Mailer, who believed drinking helps guide men to truth, depicts substitutes for friends meeting and talking in Tough Guys Don’t Dance. In Provincetown during the off season, alcohol makes other people bearable. “In the silence of our winter,” Tim Madden says, “dull acquaintances, drunks, wretches and bores could be elevated to a species thought of as friend.” The narrator can drink with a man he dislikes because he, like Madden, is a writer. “In winter we needed each other if only to be critical of our contemporaries together…. Our rage against the talent of those who were our age and successful made the marrow of many an evening….” Drinking also serves other purposes in the novel, whose protagonist wakes up with alcohol-induced amnesia leaving him uncertain about whether he committed murder.

For these writers, alcohol contributes to conviviality. It makes talking to people easier, which connects drinking with language use. Amis declares: “conversation, hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, particularly intimate way.” He goes further than the others in demonstrating the closeness of the relationship. (He differentiates himself from them in additional ways as well. A critic of flamboyant style that attracts attention to itself, he had no love for Joyce’s writing method. He believed that “most American literature is a disaster” and disapproved of gothic sensationalism and horror in Faulkner and Poe. Mailer stabbed one of his wives, which Amis could not overlook.)

Amis thought about drinking and writing in very similar terms, according to his friend Paul Fussell, who regards Amis’s generosity as something of a moral principle. Amis disliked teaching at Cambridge in part because of colleagues’ “meanness with drink,” Fussell writes in The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters. One of them withdrew an invitation to have drinks with an unsatisfactory excuse and conveniently forgot to bring his wallet to a later meeting at a pub. Allowing that the incidents might not really have been deliberate attempts to deny Amis his desired drinks, Fussell explains that “to one so obsessed with generosity as Amis, even the accidental appearance of meanness can be taken as evidence of moral delinquency.” Amis similarly found such flaws in “the stylistic show-off, [the writer] more concerned to exhibit his own cleverness than to convey delightful meaning to the reader.” Literary style of this sort amounts to selfishness, and “meanness becomes something like a metaphor for all sorts of artistic perversions.” Vladimir Nabokov exemplified such perversity for Amis, who viewed Lolita as immoral not for its subject matter but for being “full of gestures betraying self-concern in the author and a high level of personal vanity.”

Kingsley Amis with Elizabeth Jane Howard

Amis’s thoughts about writing elevate revision to a virtue. Amis saw a need for ceaseless self-criticism, noting that “the price of good style is eternal vigilance.” James, who dubs Amis a “stickler for linguistic efficiency” and praises him repeatedly in Cultural Amnesia, shares his view of revision as having a moral aspect. The “good” writer he mentions is not only talented; he is also humble. James asserts that “nobody incapable of humility bothers to rewrite a sentence.” He echoes Amis’s line about a writer invariably being a critic of his own work, revealing that “one of the secrets of creativity is an unrelenting self-criticism.” Amis considered “impatience with revision” to be a “distinctly moral defect,” according to Fussell. Martin Amis believed his father enjoyed the fussy process of preparing drinks – the combining of ingredients and the adjusting of amounts in the search for the ideal intoxicating concoction – which suggests another parallel with writing, with its continual tinkering and reworking. Whether reviewing a book or a restaurant, Amis insisted on “decent treatment.” Fussell contends that this amounts to a demand for “moral seriousness,” both when entertaining guests and when writing (and revising) for readers.

It is in comedy, not in seriousness, where Amis most intently makes the connection between alcohol and literature. Fussell calls On Drink, one of the three Amis works brought back into print in Everyday Drinking, “a treatise, sympathetic and funny, on human folly and the comic-pathetic predicament of being constrained and tormented by human impulses.” More plainly, it deals with drinking and its consequences. Amis offers a section on the hangover as a corrective. “There are poems and songs about drinking, of course, but none to speak of about getting drunk, let alone having been drunk,” he claims. “Novelists go into the subject more deeply and extensively, but tend to straddle the target, either polishing off the hero’s hangover in a few sentences or, so to speak, making it the whole of the novel.” He offers tips on coping with both the physical and the metaphysical hangover. For the former he advises vigorous sex, consuming copious amounts of water, staying in bed as long as possible, shaving (one of many signals that he writes for a male audience), avoiding food and cigarettes and then, around mid-day, resuming alcohol intake. Countermeasures proposed for “that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future” that accompanies the physical hangover include suggestions for reading, which again points to the relatedness of literature and alcohol. Amis recommends the end of Paradise Lost, since suffering a hangover makes readers better able to comprehend the expulsion from Eden. Yet he recognizes the problem that in such a reduced state “you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton.”

Turning to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich provides a timely reminder that “there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have.” Once a metaphysical hangover sufferer feels he might, at some time in the future, smile again, he should first pick up a thriller or action novel by the likes of Ian Fleming or C.S. Forester before switching to light comedy. The course of treatment “rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better.” This principle also underlies his fiction, which places characters in humiliating situations, which they endure only to confront more indignities, just as a persistent drinker will survive one hangover only to encounter yet another.

Although Amis says that writers neglect drunkenness and hangovers, he never did. He claimed them as his territory, which he thoroughly explored. He started surveying it with Lucky Jim, written nearly two decades before the first of the subsequently-collected newspaper columns on drinks and drinking from the 1970s and 1980s. (Everyday Drinking modifies the title of Amis’s Every Day Drinking. The resurrected tests of alcohol trivia were originally issued as How’s Your Glass?). “Alcohol infuses and even saturates his fiction,” Martin Amis says of his father, whose first novel contains this evocation of the next morning:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

For Lucky Jim alone Amis could claim the title “laureate of the hangover,” as Martin Amis designates him. Everyday Drinking provides a recipe for a cocktail named for the novel’s main character. The Lucky Jim, a variation on the Gibson, combines vodka, vermouth and cucumbers, and its creator no doubt worked out the proportions with diligence, testing and revising them as needed.

A decade after Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis wrote One Fat Englishman, a novel suffused with alcohol. Set in the United States, where colleges take their names from beer brands, the novel sees the publisher and “noted alcoholist” Roger Micheldene drink his way through such minor disasters as arriving to give a lecture only to discover someone has replaced his text with a comic book, failing to make assignations with the much pursued and pursueable wife of a professor at Budweiser College, and being expelled from a jazz club for helping himself to strangers’ pitcher of beer. Drinking provides Micheldene with a way of thinking about his reluctant mistress. Having earlier failed to see her completely naked, he wonders if he will be able to handle her “neat,” or whether such a potent visual experience would prove “too strong for him.” Throughout, the title character displays an Amis-like attitude to alcohol: “If it made him drunk without making him throw up on the spot, he would declare, it was his drink.”

Drinking permeates other Amis novels as well. The Old Devils, for instance, identifies a fundamental problem for retired people: “All those hours with nothing to stay sober for. Or nothing to naturally stay sober during….” A character in I Like It Here appreciates beer’s “property of making him drunk” and imagines owning a brewery and promoting his brand with the straightforward slogan: “Makes You Drunk.

The humor Amis aims for in his “alcohology” shares traits with the fiction. In the novels characters repeatedly confront embarrassment and loss, often involving women. In Everyday Drinking he offers the “drink-man” tips for avoiding threats to easy imbibing (as well as for ameliorating hangovers). He recommends securing a designated home bar refrigerator: “There really is no way around this. Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a claim on, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like food.” He outlines several general principles, which include favoring quantity over quality and using “the cheapest reliable article” for mixed drinks involving fruit juice, vegetable juice or sweetening. To confirm the value he places on generosity, he delineates its opposite. His “Mean Sod’s Guide” describes how to stint guests on drinks “while seeming, at any rate to their wives, to have done them rather well” (emphasis in original) in order cause a marital argument, with the husband “disparaging your hospitality” and the wife countering that he is “just a frustrated drunk.”

An eager proponent of beer and distilled spirits, Amis is ambivalent about wine. He thinks beer pairs best with traditional British food, and he suspects affectation in anyone choosing wine instead. In a review of Philip Larkin’s High Windows, he compares the poems to fine Scotch, intending high praise. The precious way others write and talk about wine causes at least some of his wariness over that part of alcohol’s holy trinity. “When I hear someone I respect writing about an edgy, nervous wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe,” he reports. “When I hear someone I don’t respect talking about an austere, unforgiving wine, I turn a bit austere and unforgiving myself.” His opposition to snobbishness extends to endorsing commercial beverage mixes, and the drink-men he respects are those that drink what they like, in gargantuan quantities, regardless of what others might regard as sophisticated or appropriate. He urges extravagance only with the amounts. That is how he attacked alcohol in what his son called his lifelong “quest” for drunkenness. Martin Amis also finds a practical reason for his father’s fusion of alcohol and literature: “He wrote about booze to salvage something from all the hours he devoted to it.”

If in these notes I appear to conflate the writing and the man, Amis offers justification for doing so. Writers expose themselves in their work, even when not writing openly about themselves, as Amis acknowledges. In his Memoirs, he states: “I have already written an account of myself in twenty or more volumes, most of them called novels.” He clarifies that his novels are “firmly unautobiographical, but at the same time every word of them inevitably says something about the kind of person I am. ‘In vino veritas – I don’t know,’ Anthony Powell once said to me, ‘but in scribendo veritas – a certainty.’” He reveals himself to be the kind of person who indefatigably blended scribendo and vino, or, preferably, Scotch.

Being that kind of writer does not always produce laughs. The tedious quiz portion of Everyday Drinking and its frequent repetition of jokes are the least of the problem. Sometimes physical ravages, mental diminishment and martial strife just are not funny. Amis boasts that artists drink a lot not because of “the artistic temperament” but because of the hours: they can take the morning off if the after effects of indulgence warrant it. Without question, not all alcohol devotees follow Joyce’s evening-only schedule. Near the end of his life, Larkin began his days with multiple glasses of inexpensive port, explaining to Amis, “you’ve got to have some fucking reason for getting up in the morning.” The line might have fit in The Old Devils if it did not express such desperation. Lowry, author of the drink-soaked novel Under the Volcano, ended a dry period by embarking on a regimen that included cocktails before lunch and pre-dinner drinks staring in mid-afternoon. By the late 1940s he daily consumed three bottles of wine and a couple bottles of rum. Martin Amis described Lowry as unreliable, self-centered, sloppy and insecure, which he identifies as standard qualities of the determined alcoholic. He had plenty of opportunities to observe such a creature. In Experience, he recounts helping his father up after he had taken a drunken spill that mixed “overall dissolution and the loss of basic physical coherence.” As the pair attempted to cross a London street, the older one collapsed and “every bit of him was falling, dropping, seeking the lowest level, like a mudslide.” Looking back on the incident, the younger man can allow that it was only “about 3 per cent comic.”

The not very humorous effects of such a way of living also bear heavily on writers’ spouses (and not only Mailer’s). Joyce’s wife was less forgiving of his heavy drinking than the author of James Joyce. She tired of her husband “tumbling about every night” and wasting his meager income on extravagant tipping. She threatened to walk away from him and his excesses. Melville’s drinking also caused his wife to question the wisdom of Cyrus and consider moving out. Yet, just as Joyce did with Nora, Melville persuaded Lizzie not to go. While adultery rather than alcohol precipitated Amis’s first divorce, drinking was a factor in the next one. His second wife demanded that her soon-to-be-ex-husband join Alcoholic Anonymous, for instance. When Martin Amis asked his mother what his father was dying of, she replied with a single word: Drink.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s work has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan.