Sunday, August 8, 2010

KNOW WHAT YOU DRINK

Maybe this is very slightly off topic; more drinking than eating, and also about writing, but I know you Psycho-Gourmet readers are literate types. It appeared last week in the New York Times Book Review, under the title DRINK WHAT YOU KNOW.


There are only two cocktails: “a slug of whiskey” and a martini. This isn’t my opinion, but the law as laid down by Bernard DeVoto in his book “The Hour,” first published in 1948 and recently reissued. It so happens that I’ve owned a copy of this book for a long time and often wondered if anyone would ever bring it back into print and whether the world would find it as engaging and infuriating as I do.


The hour referred to is the cocktail hour, naturally, and the book is essentially a celebration of booze, but only the kind DeVoto approves of, and as we see, he doesn’t approve of much. “Hot drinks are for people who have had skiing accidents,” he declares. And “one tribe of our enemies drink something they call a Gibson. They are not drinking a cocktail, they are drinking gin with an onion in it.”


Now, I happen to think he has a couple of good points there, but then he banishes even the olive from the martini, which strikes me as downright foolish. This, of course, is the problem with offering advice of any kind: people think you’re talking sense only when your prejudices coincide with theirs. Dissenters tend to raise the question “Who asked you anyway?”
You might imagine that Christopher Hitchens (may there be many more martinis in his future) would be far too wised up about human folly to lay down rules about drinking, and yet there he is in his recent memoir, “Hitch-22,” delivering wisdom like “Drink when you are in a good mood,” “It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone,” “Cheap booze is a false economy” and so on.


This last opinion would seem to put him in direct opposition to Kingsley Amis. In “Everyday Drinking,” a collection of his booze-related writings just issued in paperback, Amis gives the recipe for the Lucky Jim, essentially a vodka martini with cucumber juice in it. And wait, it gets worse when he writes in a footnote, “Use a British vodka, the cheapest you can find.” As Hitchens himself notes in his introduction to “Everyday Drinking,” Amis eventually became “a very slight cocktail bore,” though Hitchens insists this was only in print. Maybe, but Amis’s insistence that a basic dry martini should contain cocktail onions (note the plural) would irk many souls far less touchy than Bernard DeVoto.


Reading all this, I find myself wondering why on earth writers would bother setting down rules for other people’s drinking. People telling you how to drink is every bit as tedious and annoying as people telling you not to drink at all. It seems to me that writers are much more useful in these matters when their advice is dispensed casually in their fiction — when they are showing rather than telling. After all, “Lucky Jim” contains some of the greatest booze-related scenes in all fiction, from which you might learn, for instance, that if, in a drunken stupor, you burn a hole in your hostess’s sheets, cutting around the edges with a razor is unlikely to convince her that the cause was “dry rot or the ravages of a colony of moths.” It may be reductive to think of literature as an etiquette manual for the young and/or na├»ve drinker, but when I had my first hangover, very shortly after I’d first read “Othello,” I was much consoled by the line “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!” It told me I wasn’t the first idiot ever to feel so remorseful the morning after.


Equally, I knew from reading Dorothy Parker that three martinis would put me under the table, and four under my host, long before I’d had even one martini. And I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have so much affection for the gimlet if I hadn’t discovered it in Raymond Chandler’s “Long Goodbye” as a symbol of loss, melancholy and tarnished ideals. I also know, thanks to Hunter S. Thompson, that if I ever make a savage journey to the heart of the American dream, I should load up the trunk of my car with a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, and a pint of raw ether, among many other substances.


Of course, you could argue that if the lives of Parker, Chandler and Thompson prove anything, it’s that writers might be better off not drinking at all, but that’s one piece of advice that’s never going to fly. In some cases it would leave them with nothing to write about.


That unredeemed drinker Jack Kerouac did offer one excellent piece of advice, “Try never get drunk outside yr own house,” a clear case of do what I say, not what I do. However, this wasn’t a rule for drinking: it was a rule for writing, attached to his list of “essentials of spontaneous prose.”

When you think about it, rules for drinking are not so different from rules for writing. Many of these are so familiar they’ve become truisms: Write what you know. Write every day. Never use a strange, fancy word when a simple one will do. Always finish the day’s writing when you could still do more. With a little adaptation these rules apply just as well for drinking. Drink what you know, drink regularly rather than in binges, avoid needlessly exotic booze, and leave the table while you can still stand.

You could also substitute “drink” for “write” in these well-known examples of writerly wisdom. “An author ought to write for the youth of his generation” (Fitzgerald). “Write, damn you! What else are you good for?” (Joyce). “Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To leap. To fly. To fail” (Sontag).


Other writers prefer to offer lengthier, more complex pieces of advice. On her Web site, Erica Jong suggests that when writing you should “forget intellect,” “forget ego,” “accept change” and “let sex in,” which is pretty much what happens to most of us when we drink. I’m also fond of one of Richard Ford’s rules: “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.” This transfers very nicely indeed to drink. Nothing could be worse for a drinker than to marry someone who thinks drinking is a bad idea.

However, the biggest problem with trying to establish rules about things as personal as drinking or writing is that however good the advice, the person on the receiving end is never going to be able to take somebody else’s word for it. You have to find out about these things for yourself, usually the hard way. You write and drink as you see fit, partly out of choice, often out of need, and if you wake up next morning, look back on what you’ve done and feel mortified and shaken — well, maybe you’ve learned something. But this lesson is never transferable. Somebody tells you not to mix Zima with Drambuie, somebody says that rewriting Icelandic myths in the style of Candace Bushnell is a really bad idea, but you may feel compelled to go ahead and do it anyway.


The best you can hope for is to arrive, by whatever means, at the same conclusions as those who are older and wiser. Another piece of advice from Richard Ford runs, “Don’t drink and write at the same time,” a rule I follow scrupulously. But a more nuanced version of the same rule comes from Keith Waterhouse, the author of “Billy Liar.” He said you should never drink while you’re writing, but it’s O.K. to write while you’re drinking, a nice distinction.


And finally there is one gem of wisdom to be found amid all the prejudice and humbug of “The Hour.” DeVoto writes, “For God’s sake, develop a little skill and then do the job unostentatiously.” Great advice that applies equally to both drinking and writing, if you ask me, although I am, of course, well aware that you didn’t.

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