It’s hard to think of anyone who writes about drinking with more authority, finesse, and psychological sensitivity than the late Kingsley Amis, who could, no surprise, really put it away.
His first editor, Hilary Rubenstein, found it implausible that the protagonist of Lucky Jim could drink ten pints of beer at the pub in a single evening, but that, as John Banville observes in a new introduction to Amis’ The Old Devils, “was before he had met the author in person.”
(For more details, pick up a copy of Everyday Drinking, a collection of Amis’ very smart and very funny newspaper columns and associated miscellany on the subject. Dwight Garner’s review four years ago was so entertaining, I delayed reading the book lest it disappoint.
When I finally did get my hands on a copy, though, I tore right through it, and soon was reading aloud to friends and saluting the out-of-doors with Amis’ Salty Dog. Probably a more tolerable phase than when I was obsessed with his language book, The King’s English.)
In his fiction, Amis’ best-known drinking passage is probably this one, from Lucky Jim, which came first on the Guardian’s list of “the ten best fictional hangovers“: “Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way… He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning… His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
If Everyday Drinking makes even the downsides of dipsomania charming, though, and Lucky Jim refracts them through the romantic lens of youth, The Old Devils depicts in terrible, intimate detail the indignities of that way of life, with special attention to the poisonous mornings-after. The book centers on a group of sixty-somethings in small-town Wales who seek to alleviate the tedium of their days and their marriages by consuming copious amounts of liquor (the men) or wine (the women), and who pay dearly in the cold, nauseous light of dawn. It’s hard to think of many literary passages that are a greater deterrent to tying that last one on than the descriptions in this book of elderly drunks struggling to crawl out of bed.
For one extremely overweight alcoholic, Peter, my favorite character in the book, getting up “had stopped being what you hurried heedlessly through before you did anything of interest and had turned into a major event of the day.” What “really took it out of him was the actual donning of clothes, refined as this had been over the years, and its heaviest item was the opener, putting his socks on. At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noticed that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails.” Over the course of a few excruciating pages, Peter dresses and grooms himself, fighting off “gripping, squeezing” chest pain that induced, as usual, by fear of his wife, Muriel, “simple fear of her tongue.” Amis was sometimes called a show-off, accused of excelling at comedy while failing at empathy, but the Old Devils’ travails are as painfully true as they are funny. Those toenails will haunt me for a long, long time.
Fans of Kingsley Amis and of gin who live in or near New York City should join NYT Mag drink writer Rosie Schaap, the Book Review’s Parul Seghal, and me at a celebration hosted by Vol. 1 Brooklyn at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe tonight to celebrate the NYRB Classics reissues of The Old Devils and Lucky Jim. The festivities get underway at 7. Drinks will, of course, be served.