ON THE AVENUES: I’d stop drinking, but I’m no quitter.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Col. Sherman T. Potter: I gather you drink.
Captain“Hawkeye” Pierce: Only to excess.
In the Western cultural tradition, there are numerous examples of the seasoned drinker as a sodden protagonist, at times an inspiring and compelling figure – perhaps even a heroic one, as with Norm Peterson on Cheers – although bar owner Sam Malone was a reformed alcoholic, as was the real-life Nicholas Colosanto, who played the bartender Coach on the popular show.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, although it occurs to me some of you might not want to go here, finding the topic distasteful. At the same time, it would be pointless of me to deny or to disavow a career in beverage alcohol, or to suggest that it was only a job. Trust me; my work wasn’t left back atop a desk at the office.
I drink very differently now than before, and far less overall, but drinking’s still a conscious lifestyle choice. So it goes.
Back to these fictional drinkers, who in my view reflect an existential aspect of the human condition. To be succinct, what else remains to be said, done or alibied when life’s fundamentally surreal futility strikes you as inescapable, and is best addressed and assuaged by peering through the bottom of a lifted glass, one deftly drained just seconds ago?
The cultural milieu of alcoholic beverages in places like India, Bolivia or Ghana remains a mystery to me, although it is clear that the pursuit of intoxicants is a universal human condition throughout the world. Certain European and American archetypes endure to entertain and enlighten, from Falstaff in olden times to Bukowski in ours, as buttressed by diverse personalities such as W.C. Fields, Dean Martin and Dudley Moore’s Arthur.
Much to the consternation of Trumpolini’s dull cadres, I’ve always been a reader of books. In the American literary oeuvre, one must push past cautionary tales of prohibitionist finger-wagging during the lamentably fevered Carrie Nation period of our national existence, straight to the dawn of the modern period occurring just after the Great War. Inhibitions fell prey to an all-encompassing, collective thirst enabled by the villainous Volstead Act, and brutal realism finally forced its way out of societal straitjackets.
Imbibing in print became great again.
It may have been Ernest Hemingway who first incorporated the drinker’s lifestyle as integral backdrop, seen most strikingly in his groundbreaking novel, The Sun Also Rises. Youthful, disaffected, expatriated Americans find solace in adult beverages at all hours of the day, even when they should be diligently working to appease the Puritanical prerequisites of capitalism and families back home.
Equilibrium came with Repeal, and America scarcely skipped a beat, quickly eschewing Scott and Zelda for Reefer Madness and later, Timothy Leary. However, this is beyond the scope of today’s column.
Malcolm Lowry was an Englishman heavily influenced by the New World, and he captured the bibulous essence in the person of Geoffrey Firmin, otherwise known as the Consul, in Under the Volcano. Firmin is a defeated man on the Day of the Dead, utterly adrift during his final hours on earth, navigating the streets of a dusty Mexican provincial town in search of celestial meaning and settling instead for bottles of mezcal hidden in the shrubbery, as well as an infamous midday jolt of aftershave.
When seeking literary inspiration across the pond, a personal favorite is J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, chronicling the antics of supposed student Sebastian Dangerfield, a profligate American carousing, drinking, roaring and whoring in Ireland. For more of the same, Anglo-style, consult Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and know that in his prime, the very real Amis fully imitated his art.
On the continent, Czech playwright-turned-statesman Vaclav Havel’s two-person play, Audience, posits an artistic, city-dwelling enemy of the totalitarian state abruptly sent as punishment to the hinterlands and a term as manual laborer in a brewery. He must endure the ramblings of his boss, who cannot refrain from sampling the fermented wares and hilariously sinks into inebriation while haplessly pretending to interrogate the urban exile.
The doctor in László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango desperately tries to ration his enabling pálinka (and fails) as he observes the disintegration of the dysfunctional collective farm, and in the first-person narrative of The Drinker, by Hans Fallada, the hapless Herr Sommer will swallow just about anything as he abruptly transitions from sobriety to alcoholism, and eventually to insanity – but schnapps is the preferred lubricant of his alarmingly precipitous decline.
For something approximating a philosophical rationale for the drinker’s lifestyle choice, we must turn to Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities and the bombastic figure of Mr. Traba, a retired Lutheran pastor in heavily Catholic (and Communist) Poland.
Mr. Traba’s daily doses of vodka are the pretext for a fateful decision. It is 1963, and he has decided to erase his life’s numerous frustrations by committing a final, exclamatory act: Assassinating Gomulka, the unimaginative and degraded Communist tyrant. As the tragicomic final moment draws near, the perpetually intoxicated Mr. Traba addresses his companions:
Of course, there were moments in my wasted life when I got the audacious idea in my head to gain mastery of some earthly skill other than drinking, but upon reflection I rejected all these ideas. I drank all my life, and drinking was my work and my rest, my love and my hobby. Drinking was my art, my concert, and my artfully written sonnet. Drinking was my cognition, my description, my synthesis, and my analysis.
Only amateurs, laymen and graphomaniacs assert that you drink in order to soften the monstrosity of the world and to dull unbearable sensitivity. On the contrary, you drink in order to deepen pain and to heighten sensitivity. Especially in a case like mine: when there is nothing but drinking, it is necessary to make an art of drinking, it is necessary to reach the heart of the matter through drinking, and the heart of the matter is death.
When I first read the testimony of Pilch’s extraordinary character, I finally understood the contemporary reality of which all New Albanians boasting consciousness and a pulse must eventually grapple.
Even today, it is virtually impossible to attend a public meeting in this town without recourse to strong drink.
In fact, a full decade after our presumed civic revitalization began with the establishment of Bistro New Albany — a pivotal if short-lived eatery and watering hole — the pendulum has swung all the way back to alcohol as the best available means to deepen pain and heighten sensitivity. Dissipation may be a masochistic coping mechanism to counter the Disney-fried dictatorship, but it has the benefit of reminding us of how little the base culture has changed in all this time.
My favorite way of defining dissipation is this: “Unrestrained indulgence in physical pleasures, especially alcohol.”
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been an aficionado of dissipation, albeit in the manner of a willful, controlled narrative. In the hands of lesser mortals, dissipation can be harmful, but there are times when it proceeds from conscious calculation in the face of savage, visceral, conditioned responses, as when a glance at the calendar confirms that it’s a first Monday or third Thursday, and the occasion for another New Albany common council meeting.
(Given that attendance at Redevelopment Commission meetings would require sedation by an anesthesiologist, let’s not even go there … literally as well as figuratively.)
Considering the implications of meeting attendance, you find yourself thinking about how those impossibly brief final hours should be spent before history rudely repeats itself as tragedy, farce or vaudeville’s worst ventriloquist routines. Will you smoke a cigarette, have a last supper, and leave a testament for posterity?
Better to have a stiff drink, relax and enjoy the inevitable. Dissipation suddenly ceases to be a pejorative term thrown your way by the kill-joys and health fascists, and comes to more closely resemble what Ernest Hemingway, a true giant of the dissipative genre, once described as a “means of sovereign action.”
Papa was talking about a bottle of liquor, which could be consumed, used to crack skulls or rendered into a Molotov cocktail, sometimes all at once. Until recently, I stuck to a regimen of Progressive Pints somewhere downtown before ambling down to the City-County Building and taking in the floor show.
But times change, and medicine’s effectiveness changes with them. Lately the prescription has come full circle, all the way back to the improvised still in the Swamp. It may or may not have been gin, but there can be no doubt that it was the right stuff.
Hawkeye Pierce: Let’s make a pact about drinking.
Trapper John McIntyre: All right.
Hawkeye Pierce: Let’s never stop.
January 19: ON THE AVENUES: Mezcal for what ails you.