The old joke, of course, is that an alcoholic is somebody who drinks more than his or her doctor, but I’m pretty sure my own doctor doesn’t drink at all. I'm never sure where that leaves me.
I was told the story, supposedly true, that when the poet Taner Baybars (who I knew very slightly) went to live in France towards the end of his life, his drinking got out of hand. He wasn’t in the best of health anyway, and so he went to see a French doctor who asked him how much he drank. Taner answered truthfully that he was now up to three bottles of wine a day, and anticipating the doctor’s reaction said he was prepared to reduce his intake, but didn’t think he could get down below one bottle a day. The doctor replied that getting down to one bottle a day was probably unnecessary but he really should try to limit it to two.
I’ve been thinking about doctors and drink because I’ve been reading Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics, published in 1953. I was seduced by the pulp jacket, shown at the top of this post, though actually I read it in this version:
As is usually the way with Thompson, the book’s a bit all over the place, and it contains this description of the way alcohol works:
“Everyone knew that when the the alcohol in the bloodstream reached a small fraction of one percent, the person through whom that bloodstream flowed became a corpse. His heart stopped. He smothered. Everyone knew that alcohol rose up the spinal canal to the brain, pressing harder and harder against the fragile cells until they exploded and their owner became an imbecile.”
Now Thompson knew what he was talking about when it comes to drink – he spent time in clinics trying to dry out - but I really don’t know what he’s up to there.
The Alcoholics is set in a clinic run by one Dr. Murphy, and there’s a bad nurse who (if I’m reading it correctly) is also a bit of a nymphomaniac. There are some curious similarities to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito says the book's “a pale rewrite” of Behind the Door of Delusion, published in 1932 under the pseudonym “Inmate Ward 8.” The jacket here seems to have been designed by a bright 10 year old:
There are also vague similarities to parts of The Long Goodbye, specifically Dr.
Verringer’s clinic where the writer Roger Wade ends up. Maybe Chandler also knew Behind the Door of Delusion.
Chandler certainly knew what he was talking about when it came to drink, and digging around on the interwebs I found this, from the Daily Independent Journal, Thursday Feb 24th 1955 (I think we can assume Chandler might have consumed a gimlet or two):
Still, what a time to have been alive, when writers made the news simply by being carted off to the funny farm.