A Look at Intoxicating Literature

Drinking is an important “device” in many literary works. It can feel like real life, it can be fun, it can be dramatic, it can be disastrous. And one reason why the quaffing of adult beverages is often conveyed so believably in fiction is that some authors have had plenty of personal experience with it. 🙂

Few novels are as drenched in alcoholism as Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, in which booze sends a hardworking former teetotaler (Gervaise Macquart) into a horrible downward spiral. Liquor also plays a big role in the grim descent of Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.

Then there’s Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen escapes an awful marriage to the hard-drinking Arthur Huntington — taking their young son with her. (The last straw for Helen was Arthur encouraging the boy to imbibe.) Leaving one’s husband was quite a proto-feminist act for a novel published in 1848, when wives were basically expected to accept whatever abuse their “worser half” dished out.

Another alcoholic is Crime and Punishment’s Semyon, who’s a pathetically interesting character in his own right but more importantly the father of Sonya — the woman who becomes so important to protagonist Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel.

Plus Huck Finn’s father, whose drunkenness and destitution shape his son and are transcended by his son in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Often, drinking can be part of a memorable single scene in a novel. The wild banquet in Honore de Balzac’s The Magic Skin is vividly described, and is representative of Raphael de Valentin’s dissolution. An intense tavern scene in George Eliot’s Silas Marner features the loner title character in a state of agitation after being robbed. Anne and Diana getting soused with currant wine the girls thought was raspberry cordial is pretty darn funny in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Then there are novels in which characters are employed serving drinks. In Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, village barmaid Heidi is actually an undercover agent for the Allied forces in World War II Germany. Julia Glass’ elegiac Three Junes has Maureen working as a barkeep when she meets Paul — after which the Scottish couple have a less-than-idyllic marriage. One of their sons moves to America, where Fenno mostly resists the gay bars of 1980s Manhattan as the AIDS scourge hits.

And the star of Grail Nights is a New Orleans bartender named Sheila whose place of business is a perfect locale for author Amanda Moores to spin one interrelated tale after another as the protagonist interacts with different people — creating a “short-story cycle as novel” a la Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. (Ms. Moores is the wife of jhNY — who, as you know, regular posts great comments here. He tells me that 100 copies of Grail Nights have been printed, signed by Ms. Moores, and numbered — and that about a dozen of those copies are being offered free to readers of this blog. If you’re interested, email me at dastor@earthlink.net and include your mailing address. I’ll give your address to jhNY, and he’ll send you the book. No postage costs, either. I read Grail Nights a couple of weeks ago, and found it enthralling and beautifully written. Plus jhNY provided the artwork for the front and back covers — with the design of the book handled by Roger Lathbury.)

Speaking of short stories, intoxication is a major factor in the macabre Edgar Allan Poe classic “The Cask of Amontillado.”

And there are countless other fictional protagonists who turn to drink when beaten down by tragedy, poverty, bigotry, disappointment, and life in general. But there are also many characters who enjoy beer, wine, or spirits in moderation — alone or in a social setting.

What are some memorable literary works you’ve read featuring alcoholics, drinking themes, and/or drinking moments?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I won’t be posting a column on Dec. 27 because of a trip, but will occasionally check the blog that week to respond to comments. Back with another column on Jan. 3!

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

If You Were Trying to Convince People to Read Fiction, What Would You Say?

Most people who follow this blog are avid fans of literature. But we all have family and friends who don’t read any or much fiction — unless they stumble across a Donald Trump speech. 🙂

Everyone has their own interests and time constraints, so I never harangue the book-averse for not reading more novels. You’re probably the same way. But what if you hypothetically took aside people who don’t read literature and tried to convince them to do so? What would you say? What arguments would you use? (And I don’t mean threatening to smack them with a hardcover copy of War and Peace.) This column will consist of my hypothetical talking points, and then I’ll ask for yours.

I would tell the book-averse that reading fiction is fun and entertaining — as well as relaxing in some cases and exciting in other cases.

Educational, too. You learn about different locales (in the U.S. or abroad or even outer space), you learn about different cultures, and you learn about different time periods. You also learn about things that are a little harder to pin down — such as the variety of human emotions.

Literature can also be comforting. There’s something soothing about letting your mind go to another mental place, and about realizing that people from thousands of miles away or centuries ago might have similar thoughts as you. Part of this can involve learning from history so we’re not doomed to repeat it, to paraphrase the famous phrase attributed to George Santayana — whose writing included fiction.

Not soothing but also very important is how literature can take us OUT of our comfort zone and challenge us to look at things in a different way than we’re accustomed to.

Can you get all of the above from, say, watching TV programs or movies? Some of it. Yet images on a screen SHOW you things; you don’t use your imagination as much as you do when seeing things only in your mind’s eye when reading.

On a more prosaic level, reading fiction will give you interesting things to talk about (at parties and elsewhere) — including lines like: “Harumph — I just saw yet another film not as good as the novel it’s based on.” 🙂

And reading literature means you’re monetarily supporting some very creative author minds. Not to mention helping independent bookstores, if that’s how you roll when shopping for fictional works.

When hypothetically trying to convince people to read literature, it wouldn’t hurt to urge them to start with popular page-turners — and then hope those readers eventually throw some older or modern classics into the mix.

I realize much of what I said in this piece is obvious, but…okay, okay…books are also good for propping up the legs of uneven tables. Unless you use a Kindle, which might not do as well in that table-leveling capacity…

What would you tell literature-avoiding family members or friends to try to get them in fiction-reading mode?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

A Transportation Compilation

It’s the holiday season, and that often means traveling in planes, trains, and automobiles — to reference the title of a 1987 movie.

Well, I once wrote about cars in literature, so I’ll focus this post on fiction’s planes and trains — and throw in a few buses, too!

Of course, lots of literature has characters taking incidental flights or railroad rides to get somewhere, but this piece will focus on plane or train appearances that are important to the story. And I’ll keep in mind that fiction published before a certain 1903 invention by the Wright Brothers featured more trains than planes. I wonder why? 🙂

Emile Zola’s riveting 1890 novel The Beast in Man practically stars a train. Driving that majestic locomotive is troubled Jacques Lantier — whose train and life both end up crashing. Speaking of 19th-century literature, a train also plays a VERY major role in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Tracks continued to appear in 20th- and 21st-century fiction. For instance, a train wreck in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake causes a survivor to name his son Gogol, because that’s who the father was reading when the accident occurred. Also, authorities covered up their massacre of many banana workers by secretly carrying the bodies away by rail and tossing them in the sea — a real-life 1928 atrocity devastatingly recounted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And it’s hard to forget Agatha Christie’s mystery classic Murder on the Orient Express.

On a less grisly note, the Hogwarts Express is a big player in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. That train takes students from London to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it’s where Harry first meets his pals Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley — not to mention Draco Malfoy, the Slytherin boy with whom he’ll have many tangles over the course of seven books.

In Darryl Brock’s page-turning baseball novel If I Never Get Back, a train figures prominently when 20th-century protagonist Sam Fowler travels back in time to 1869. Later in the book, Sam meets Mark Twain on another train and then eventually takes a long, arduous 19th-century rail trip from Cincinnati to the West Coast. If only Sam could have flown…

Heck, if only the Bundren family could have flown when transporting the coffin of wife and mother Addie to her grave. But not having a harrowing land journey would have made for a much different As I Lay Dying, the tour de force novel by William Faulkner.

Which leads us to planes.

A past flight mishap in Alaska is one reason why the title character in Stanley Elkin’s The Rabbi of Lud doesn’t want to leave his New Jersey town despite the fact that it’s mostly “populated” by the buried dead (not Addie Bundren, though). Larry Darrell in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge seeks the meaning of life after being traumatized by his World War I pilot experiences. Wally Worthington’s military plane is shot down in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and his being injured and missing for a long time has a profound effect on the plot and other characters.

Then there’s Richard Matheson’s iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” story — perhaps best known as a Twilight Zone episode starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner — that will make anyone terrified of looking out a plane window. And Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s brother Robert Serling wrote several novels with aviation themes, including The President’s Plane Is Missing and Stewardess.

Plane rides are also important in several Jack Reacher novels. Without Fail, for instance, has an airborne Reacher getting a chance to talk with America’s vice president-elect after Jack and others are assigned to protect him from very real assassination attempts.

Reacher and other forms of transportation? There’s a suicidal New York City subway scene in Gone Tomorrow you won’t soon forget. And Lee Child’s drifter protagonist has ridden quite a few buses — in 61 Hours, for instance. Which reminds me of John Steinbeck’s quirky novel The Wayward Bus.

Planes, trains, and buses of course also appear in many children’s books — such as Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport, The Little Engine That Could (of which the best-known version is by “Watty Piper”), The Railway Series (by Wilbert Awdry and Christopher Awdry) that stars Thomas the Tank Engine of later television fame, and The Magic School Bus books (by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen) that also got the TV treatment.

Of course, one could emulate the great band Rush and fly without being on a plane, but I don’t recommend it without a good special-effects person. Watch this very ’80s video and see. 🙂

What are you favorite fictional works featuring the transportation modes I mentioned?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

On Dec. 5, Brian Bess kindly posted a review (unsolicited!) of my 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional. As readers of this blog know, Brian frequently posts excellent comments here — and his book reviews are equally terrific!

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.