Recently, I’ve been thinking about drunks. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about literature written by drunks and/or about drinking. The positive reaction to a piece on this topic called Ten Best Books by Drunks that I posted on Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me website tells me it’s a subject that occupies many others besides myself.
Self-destruction with booze seems to go hand in glove with pen and paper.
Two recent biographies have helped catalyze my thinking on this, boiling it down to one large question, with many residual ripple-like queries. The two biographies are Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey and Charles Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne, a part of Reaktion’s “Critical Lives” series of biographies. The large question these books — and the ten books cited at the link above — raise is this: Why does literature about self-destruction in general (booze, drugs, sex, madness, etc.) captivate us so? The residual ripples: Are we captivated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect of the finished work? Do we admire the sheer madness of such lives—the breaking of every taboo in sight—and are self-protective enough not to “follow them down”? Are we secretly jealous? And then, what about the biological matter of alcohol’s effect on inspiration: Does alcohol fuel inspiration or does it merely cool the engine down after the creative spark is spent?
Perhaps it’s as simple as what my friend and frequent collaborator Parke Puterbaugh said about taking LSD. While he loved the music, art and some of the literature inspired by psychedelia, he did not want to take acid for one simple reason: “I was afraid that I’d make like the Linkletter kid and try to fly out a fourth-floor window if I took acid … I think you knew intuitively if this was something you could handle.” I felt the same way, and perhaps that’s why Parke and I were drinking buddies, and not drug buddies, in college and for many years thereafter. We could “handle” booze.
I always envied my friends who, like Parke, knew when to stop; who could stop, take breaks, repair themselves between bouts with healthy eating, exercise and non-morbid thoughts. Personally, I could not “handle” booze, as it turned out. Alcohol, and literature to a lesser extent, was my blanket, my solace against a shitty childhood, rejection by editors, girlfriends, job providers and boo hoo hoo, right?
Though I always gravitated toward writers who salved their wounds with booze (Kerouac, Thompson, Exley, Morrison, etc.), I did not drink to find literary inspiration or to augment a romantic melancholic image, which I believe is behind a lot of alcoholic posturing, especially with younger writers. At my bottoming out point, I wrote a long poem called “Drunk” and, on a whim, sent it to Allen Ginsberg. True to his generous nature, Ginsberg responded with a friendly, encouraging handwritten letter, taking pity on me, I believe. Of the poem, Ginsberg said, “It is interesting and inventive, spotty, eccentric, sometimes quite honest—the end is disappointing, somewhat repetitious (like alcoholism) …”
“Somewhat repetitious (like alcoholism).” I couldn’t have summed it up better if I’d tried for a hundred years. I hadn’t realized, until years later, that Ginsberg had had to deal with Peter Orlovsky’s chronic drinking problems, so he was speaking from firsthand experience.
The dilemma of the booze-fuelled writer is graphically illustrated by Blake Bailey’s biography of Lost Weekend author Charles Jackson, just as it was in the same author’s haunting biography of John Cheever of two years ago. Bailey seems to echo what Ginsberg said when he writes this about Jackson: “Aside from the occasional calamity, the outward reality of a drunk’s life is nothing if not tedious.”
Indeed, Charles Jackson was the drunk’s drunk. His The Lost Weekend, which later became a classic film about an alcoholic’s agony, is a near textbook account of what an hard drinker’s bottoming-out feels like. The story is fictional, but it’s based on Jackson’s experiences. Like the novel’s, Don Birnam, Jackson found himself adrift on an ocean of booze. Alcohol fueled gargantuan pipedreams and big ideas and opened up entire worlds to him — until the next morning, or at the end of the weeklong bender, when the hangover would crash him back down to earth.
Once he got sober, though, Jackson became a willing public exemplar of the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, in Bailey’s telling, he became what he felt he really was: a “humdrum mediocrity.” One of Jackson’s former college faculty colleagues, when she saw him after he got sober, “wondered what had become of the wistful, brilliant outsider she’d met a decade ago.”
For Charles Jackson, “the ‘rarefied heights’ of great art” were a thing of the past. He was fully aware that his retreat from the bottle may have saved his life, but it had a down side. Of his sobriety, he wrote, “They were years of a kind of grey, bleak, empty well-being…apathy, spiritlessness, blank sobriety, and a vegetable health.” He instinctively knew, as any “recovered” drunk does, that returning to drink to rekindle lost fires was a sure road to Hell, if not a quick and precipitous plunge toward Death.
And, alas, this is exactly what happened to Jackson. In hopes of recapturing the lightning in a bottle of The Lost Weekend, he separated from his wife, moved to New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, where before him Dylan Thomas took his own fatal last drinks and after him Sid Vicious stabbed to death Nancy Spungen, he returned to “booze and pills.” He hung on for a couple of years, pretending to complete the epic novel cycles about which he’d long dreamed. By age 65, he overdosed on barbiturates, washed down with copious amounts of booze, and his death was ruled a suicide.
Charles Bukowski, on the other hand, never turned his back on booze. Booze was his life blood, augmented with regular transfusions of Brahms, Bach, Sibelius, the race track (horse racing), John Fante, William Saroyan, Robinson Jeffers, Li Po and Catullus, and spiced with volatile relations with women. His drinking was the main subject matter of his poetry and prose, however, and in an odd kind of way, this was/is the lure and “charm” of Bukowski’s writings. No apologies made, no prisoners taken. His message is: If you don’t like what I’m doing, take a hike. The wonder is that Bukowski, like William S. Burroughs, lived such a long and robust life right up to the end.
Bukowski was the rare funny drunk, which brings up another irony of our fascination with drunken writers. Drunks can be hilarious on the page but, as everyone knows deep down, they are not so hilarious in our everyday personal lives. Ever live with a drunk? There is no better illustration of this than a four-hour collection of filmed interviews with Bukowski done by the German director Barbet Schroeder, released in 1987 under the title The Charles Bukowski Tapes.
Shroeder’s documentary is comprised of numerous short segments (none longer than ten minutes) that are brutally honest, both chilling and hilarious and, in the scenes when Bukowski is both pissed off and drunk, truly frightening. Schroeder would go on to direct a creditable and fairly faithful screen version of Bukowski’s novel, Barfly (though I don’t imagine the women Bukowski stumbled upon were anywhere near as attractive as Faye Dunaway).
One of my favorite Bukowski poems is a work that I’ve only heard on a live recording (the great album Hostage). I have never been able to locate that poem in his prodigious printed output, or in any of the 10 or 15 of his books that I own. It’s a later poem, commenting on his image as a boozy writer, and it sardonically lets the reader in on his secret: he has kept a young writer enslaved inside a cage in his basement. He feeds him “raw meat” and “whores” and booze and the caged younger man “writes all my stuff for me now.” The kicker to the poem is the last line, about how “the critics” are saying that his writing “has never been better.”
It’s the quintessential Bukowski poem, and he reads it deep in his cups, after half an hour of alternately entertaining and horrifying his Redondo Beach audience and trading increasingly nasty barbs with hecklers. The joy in Bukowski’s voice as he reads that last line says something about this connection to alcohol and writing. I am not sure what it says, good or bad. It just is.
Much like, come to think of it, Bukowski’s writing, and all of writing of this genre. Take it or leave it.