The Alcoholic in Fiction

One of the things I discovered in sobriety was that I like alcoholics. When I drank I liked them in bars. When not drinking I liked them in twelve-step groups. And I liked reading about them. Below are some of my favorite books with alcoholic characters.

Emile Zola: The Drinking Den

This book is the seventh book in Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels. It is also known as The Dram Shop and L’Assommoir. Zola writes nineteenth century realism at its best. I am on my way to finishing all twenty in his series. The Drinking Den is the story of a laundress in Paris whose successful business is brought down by her husband’s, and eventually her own, alcoholism. This book is not for the squeamish. It describes the descent into alcoholism in excruciating detail, and is a reminder that alcohol addiction and the damages it causes is neither new or American. The story of Gervaise and her journey to squalor and end-stage alcoholism is little different from the stories told in recovery communities today.

I do have a warning about Zola novels. In the beginnings of his books he brings on characters quickly and it is easy to get lost. Do not worry. Just read on and it all clears up soon enough.

John O’Hara: Appointment at Samarra

Some claim that John O’Hara, if not for his own cantankerous alcoholism, would have been America’s Fitzgerald instead of Fitzgerald, but that is now all water under the bridge.

Appointment at Sammara is set during prohibition and follows the alcoholic descent of a socially prominent small town Cadillac dealer. The book reminds us that alcoholism kills us in many ways, not simply by physical deterioration. Among the various alcoholic misbehaviors described in the book is a brilliant scene containing a conversation with a very drunk person. It is hard to write a scene like that and O’Hara did it better than anyone.

If you are not familiar with the underlying ancient story of the “appointment at Samarra” I reprint the Summerset Maughn version below.

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Lawrence Block: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

The alcoholic ex-cop is a classic character in murder mysteries — the damaged and flawed detective still holding on to a firm moral compass. It has been done a million times, but I sill get a sense of ease and comfort when I start another novel featuring one of these.

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is the third in Lawrence Block’s series featuring the detective, Mathew Scudder. It is my favorite of the Scudder books due to its rich descriptions of underground after-hours drinking establishments and the people who drink there. Scudder Knows how to drink, and the book brings out both the odd romanticism and the ugly desperation of late state alcoholism. It is an easy and entertaining read.