Philip Marlowe, Dick Diver, and literature's other liquor lovers

27 February 2014

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‘My drink is very fine. It tastes of hickory fires on fall afternoons in the far backwoods of Kentucky.’ So says Philip Marlowe in The Black Eyed Blonde, Benjamin's Black revival of Raymond Chandler's infamous private investigator. We all know about writers who drink; their tipple of choice; the quantity. But what about their characters? What do they like, and more importantly, what happens when they take to the bottle? Apart from some of the best scenes in fiction and some of the most heart-stopping writing, it often isn't pretty. 

Tender is the Night book coverDick Diver in Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Everyone loves Gatsby, but for me, when it comes to Fitzgerald, it's Tender is the Night all the way. Who could resist Dick, who lavishes 'carnivals of affection' on even distant acquaintances? Or Dick the psychiatrist, who has such a profound effect on one of his patients, Nicole Warren, that she marries him? It's Nicole, her money, and the world, which all conspire to turn him to alcoholism, so that eventually he is followed around by the scent of liquor and his friends and family fade away from him. Fitzgerald writes his disintegration with such lyricism; I find myself involuntarily sobbing when Dick says 'I'm not much myself any more.'

Never Mind book coverEleanor Melrose in Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn

If Fitzgerald is sympathetic towards Dick, St Aubyn shows anything but sympathy for Eleanor. Never Mind tells the painful story of one day in the lives of Eleanor and David Melrose and their five-year-old son Patrick. It should be an excruciating read – the characters are awful and the events appalling – and yet it's totally brilliant, such is St Aubyn's ruthless satire, his incisive wit, the character of young Patrick, and the writing... Eleanor Melrose is a functioning alcoholic, in spite or because of it all, or both; here she is dreaming of a drink:

'She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.'

Neddy Merrill in 'The Swimmer' by John Cheever

'I drank too much last night', say the collective voices at the beginning of Cheever's short story. Always at a party, always drinking, always hungover. Neddy Merrill decides to do something different – to swim from the Westerhazy's to his own home through all the pools in the county. It will be 'a contribution to modern geography', he thinks. Neddy names the swim the Lucinda River, after his wife. Initially he is greeted warmly by the pool owners as he passes through, but as he progresses he finds himself needing a drink more and more, with people less and less willing to give him one. When he arrives home, we realise that something isn't quite right.

Empty swimming pool

Cropped from Flickr/valli_mark

The couple in 'Hills Like White Elephants' by Ernest Hemingway

Possibly my favourite exchange in a short story ever is from this one of Hemingway's. A couple are talking at a station bar:

‘It tastes like liquorice,’ the girl said and put the glass down.
‘That’s the way with everything.’ 
‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’

It's Hemingway, so when she says absinthe she's really talking about something else – meaning, I suppose, that this story isn't really about drinking at all. This painting by Degas is called L'absinthe (1876) and reminds me of Hemingway's story.

L'absinthe by Edgar Degas

Everyone in Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

You can't think of Tigers without thinking about alcohol. All the characters like a drink, and those that are too young still know well how to mix them to perfection; it's in their blood. This is Daisy, a teenager at the time, on how tinkling bottles have featured in her life so far:

'As long as Daisy could remember, her aunt had had a glass of Scotch in her hand. When Daisy smelled it from the decanters on her father’s bar, or on his breath when he kissed her goodnight, a picture of Aunt Helena, blond and soft, would rise up in her mind. Normally, her father drank gin and tonics. Daisy knew because he let her make them for him sometimes. She loved the bar, with its collection of swizzlers, a rainbow of different-colored glass. The beautiful decanters, her grandmother’s crystal, each with a silver plaque that had the name of the alcohol engraved in swirling script. Her father had taught her to put the gin in first, then the ice. Finish it off with tonic water from the glass seltzer bottle, and squeeze a quarter of lime over the top and let it drop in.'

drinks bottles

The glass bottles in Daisy's house

Philip Marlowe in The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

It would be wrong to tease you with Marlowe's quote about hickory fires and not tell you that even an experienced private investigator and drinker needs to be careful when choosing his tipple, and who he drinks it with...

Read the opening passage of The Black Eyed Blonde

Or if you prefer, you can listen to a passage from the audiobook:

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