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?

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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.