There is something to be said for reading in bars—not just in one of Hemingway’s “clean, well-lighted” places, but in any old bustling spot with taps, bottles, a firm flat surface, and a seat. At night, most coffee shops are closed, and readers looking to remain connected to the movements of the city and away from their addiction to HBO need somewhere to go. Furthermore, it’s an activity that gratifies one’s vanity: a book sets the reader apart as a contemplative figure, a person of some intelligence. It can occasionally be an invitation to conversation—“Whatcha reading?” Reading is often more interesting than watching sports-news headlines scurry across a flatscreen, and is almost always more interesting than checking e-mail.
Perhaps we inefficient barroom readers are seduced by the romance born out of the link between liquor and literature. Certain bars trade on a literary sensibility, stacking musty books into shelves along the walls or hanging snippets of framed poetry behind the bar. Some make claims to literary history: visitors to New York can go to Pete’s Tavern, where William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) is said to have sketched out “The Gift of the Magi,” or, more grimly, the White Horse Tavern, where myth holds that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. (He died of pneumonia, but whiskey hadn’t helped matters.) How many Irish pubs in every corner of the world have hung a stern-looking portrait of James Joyce, or included Yeats’s name somewhere on the menu? Certain bars operate under the banner of patron saints. There are Joyce pubs in Baltimore, Santa Barbara, and near Tampa—and in Calgary, Madrid, Athens, and Beijing. In Boston, Bukowski Tavern (named for the grizzled novelist-poet Charles Bukowski) has two locations. And there’s a Bukowski’s in Prague. “I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day,” Bukowski once said in an interview. It is a testament to the esteem in which many hold his dogged alcoholism that this line has appeared both in self-help guides for alcoholics and collections of writerly bon mots on drinking.
Every bar sells, along with drinks, a sense of place, and there are certainly many less tasteful atmospheric concepts than a literary one. Still, this arranging of writing, reading, and drinking into an axis of adult high-mindedness rests on several misconceptions. Whatever charming myths we may harbor about great writers and alcohol, or about alcoholic writers, they are almost always misplaced—ignoring all the cruelties of illness and misspent energy, broken confidences and promises to loved ones.
Part of the mythology of grand alcoholic writers rests on our desire to see the many different parts of their lives as contributing to a unified artistic whole. And so the drinking must connect to the writing, either as a spark of creativity or as a release from that creativity. Or perhaps the sentimental association of drinking and writerly genius is just an attempt at forming a connection with the great authors of the past. Most of us can’t write like our heroes, but nearly every one of us can try to drink like them. But it is a poor tribute if Dorothy Parker’s wit, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholy, or John Cheever’s despair comes to be seen, finally, having emerged, already fermented, out of a bottle. Great writing, even from the legendary drinkers, was most surely done in spite of drinking rather than because of it; nearly all great writing is done in the light of sobriety. Bukowski also said, “It’s hard to write prose when you’re drinking, because prose is too much work.”
It’s a bit easier to read while drinking, however, and so the allure endures. Or it did for me until a recent ill-matched combination of location and book changed that. The setting was a busy and dark Irish pub on Eighth Avenue, across from Penn Station, during the commuting crush. The book was Charles Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend,” first published in 1944 and reissued earlier this year. On its surface, the novel seemed a good fit for reading in the low lights of a New York bar. It follows a failed writer in his early thirties named Don Birnam as he travels in and out of bars around the city. It might have been in a place like the one I was sitting in, but on Second rather than Eighth Avenue, where he makes his first stop and considers his first drink of the evening: “Gradually he worked up a subtle and elaborate pretense of ennui: stared at himself in the dark mirror of the bar, as if lost in thought; fingered his glass, turning it round and round or sliding it slowly back and forth in the wet of the counter…” Here, I, the self-conscious solitary reader, had a double in Don, alone at a bar, magnifying the supposed effect that he is having on other people.
Yet Don is less interested in his surroundings than he is in pretending not to be interested in the contents of his glass. He delays taking his first drink, savoring its proximity and its imminence. And then he drinks it, and then another, and another. Don, the narrator explains later, is a man for whom “one drink was too many and a hundred not enough.” But, from the start, it is clear that Don will not be an amiable drinking buddy, and that, for him, the great American bar is a haunted and perilous place.
He thinks back to nights in his youth, when, after staying up late to finish a poem, he would study his face in a mirror to “see if he had changed”—to confirm that the process of creation had left some mark on his body. Suddenly, in a flash of seeming inspiration, Don imagines writing a “long short story” in which a man at a bar very much like the one he’s in allows his thoughts to wander back to those moments in front of the mirror. It will be called “In a Glass,” and will allude to the dual mirrors in the past and present, and, of course, to the glass of whiskey before him. He is thrilled by his genius: “Whole sentences sprang to his mind in dazzling succession, perfectly formed, ready to be put down. Where was a pencil, paper? He downed his drink.” But just as quickly as he forms the idea, he sours on it. “Suddenly, sickeningly, the whole thing was so much eyewash. How could he have been seduced, fooled, into dreaming up such a ridiculous piece?” And in a rueful moment, he imagines the final line of the story: the central character, in despair, will decide to commit suicide. Only the narrator knows better, and the story would end with the words: “But he knew he wouldn’t.” Similarly, the story itself is an empty and futile idea, a barroom idea; Don, too, knows he will never do the things he promises himself in short moments of elation. He drinks a last rye at the bar, in mock celebration of this story he knows he will never write, and leaves to embark on a terrifying and soul-crushing weekend-long drinking binge.
Don visits other bars, but most of the narrative is given over to him scrounging together of a bit of money so he can drink alone in the apartment that he shares with his dutiful and worried brother, whose absence on this particular weekend is what sets Don loose on the world and on himself. Drink-addled and desperate, he finds new ways to debase himself: begging the laundry lady for a loan, attempting to steal a woman’s purse, and, in the novel’s lowest scene, trudging sixty blocks with his typewriter, in the heat of the day, searching for an open pawn shop, only to realize that they are all closed for Yom Kippur. “He supposed it was comic after all, but comic on a scale so vast there was no basis for human comprehension—it was only awful and stunning,” the narrator says of Don’s pawn-shop misadventure, but this bit of hyperbole is a summation of Don’s life, and the novel as a whole. On this weekend, Don suffers cruel hangovers, tremors, hallucinations, and a terrible, maiming fall down the stairs that leaves him in the alcoholic ward for the night. His drinking is the manifestation of a disease, but also has its roots in the panic and anguish that Don feels about his sexual attraction to other men. As his body falls apart, the novel tightens into a frightening psychological claustrophobia, and the reader is faced with all the little lies that Don tells himself and all the disappointments that no amount of alcohol can blot out.
I’d read all that later, though, with a cup of coffee in hand. Looking up from the book after the first scene of Don in his bar, my own surroundings had taken on a different aspect. The generic nature of the bar’s Irishness; the sight of strangers making conversation and of businessmen talking shop; the easy banter from the female bartender welcoming a regular —all of it suddenly seemed unsettling and sinister. This cheerful city bar struck me as a frightfully lonely place. I moved on then, sure that Jackson’s novel was one that couldn’t be properly read next to a pint.
“The Lost Weekend” had that effect on people. As Blake Bailey writes in his recent biography of Jackson, “Farther and Wilder,” it terrorized several early readers, all of them writers and all drinkers. “I hate the goddam book almost as much as I hate my own inflamed conscience,” wrote the novelist William Seabrook. Sinclair Lewis called it terrifying. Malcolm Lowry, who was working on his own novel about alcoholism, “Under the Volcano,” admitted that after reading “The Lost Weekend” he found it hard to go on writing his own book.
Though Charles Jackson denied it for several years, nearly every part of the novel was based on his own life. Years of alcoholism had given him the subject of what would be his only great novel, but he was long sober by the time he wrote it. As was true for Don Birnam, the drinking years were not writing years; his prose wasn’t fuelled by nightly whiskey binges but instead required physical stamina and a clear mind. “The Lost Weekend” made Jackson famous for a time. Billy Wilder directed a fine movie out of it. The novel became a kind of horrifying textbook for alcoholics, evidence of the final depths of self-hatred and madness in that place near rock bottom, and Jackson himself seemed to many a paragon of recovery, someone who had made it through the fire to the other side. Yet in the years following the success of “The Lost Weekend,” Jackson resumed drinking, as well as taking pills, and required frequent hospitalizations. In 1953, he got clean again, joining Alcoholics Anonymous and becoming a prominent spokesman for the organization. He nurtured plans for years to write a follow-up to “The Lost Weekend,” in which Birnam would manage to kick his habit. But it didn’t happen. Jackson was married and had two daughters, but lived most of his adult life as a closeted bisexual. In the mid nineteen-sixties he left his wife and turned to Seconal, a barbiturate, in an attempt to find a creative spark. It helped him turn out new but lesser work. Later, it killed him.
“The Lost Weekend” opens with a line from James Joyce’s short story “Counterparts,” from “Dubliners”: “The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot.” That story is about an alcoholic office worker whose violent temper leaves him in exile. The line is tragic, signalling the rising of an uncontrollable animal within a sick man. Yet, removed from its context, it seems like the type of phrase that could be printed on the cocktail napkins at an Irish pub—“a spell of riot” merely a few too many drinks, ensuing good fun, and maybe, if you can remember to write it down, the stimulation of some inner genius. That is the myth of the literary bar. At the start of “The Lost Weekend,” a sober Don Birnam entertains the idea of reading “Dubliners” straight through, but his mind quickly wanders to the enticement of the evening’s first drink. Days later, he finds the book on the floor, but addled from withdrawal, he can’t manage to read even a line.
[h/t: The New Yorker]