Drunken authors

I could never be the sort of author whose reputation is as big as their books, I’m too well-behaved – these days.

I mean I’ve had my moments I like to think, back in the day, when I was younger, I liked a gambol round the paddock. But nothing compared to the titans of the game for whom bad behaviour and a copious appetite for booze was as much a part of the job as a well wrought metaphor.

There was an era of course when being paralytic for much of time seemed to be essential for the man of letters – women of letters maybe not so much, though I’m sure there are those who have given it a go.

So who was the daddy? Who was the drunkest of them all?

An outside bet must be William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies among many other great works. He hit the bottle hard and cut a half-cut swathe through many a literary soiree. He’s certainly not the best known of literary drinkers though is he?

Who do you summon up when you think of the phrase drunken writer? I’m guessing the first name that springs to mind won’t be a novelist at all but a poet.

Dylan Thomas, am I right?

He certainly does have a reputation as an all out toper and he does take some beating. Thomas lived so much for the bottle that it eventually killed him before he reached 40. That’s certainly an incredibly self-destructive effort.

Essentially though, Dylan Thomas was a writer who was an alcoholic. Whereas my pick for number one, the biggest literary drunk of them all, was essentially an alcoholic who managed to produce a book. He was Malcolm Lowry and the book was Under the Volcano.

And what a book. I’d recommend it to you if you haven’t read it. Not surprisingly it deals with someone who was drinking himself to death. They say write what you know. It tells the story of the last day of the life of the ‘hero’ as he staggers from bar to bar during the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Lowry’s fate was as fixed as that of his fictional alter ego. His life seems to have been one long round of drinking whatever he could find which might possibly get him off his face, then making an ocean-going nuisance of himself, then facing the consequences. I remember a magazine profile on him by Martin Amis which revealed that Lowry once drank a huge bottle of olive oil in the belief that it was hair restorer and would get him drunk. I’m not sure which part of that story I find most strange – what he drank or what he thought he was drinking.

A typical day in Lowry’s life was: get up, drink a Jeroboam of Windolene, have a huge fight with the wife or a terrible accident with a chainsaw and finish the day either in jail or some kind of mental institution.

Not surprisingly he managed to drink himself to death too, but not until he was 47 – he must have had the constitution of Keith Richards.

I’ve not even mentioned William Burroughs who shot his wife in the head during an ill-advised game of ‘William Tell.’

I think I’ll stay a well-behaved and relatively sober author. The other kind end up dead too soon and having achieved less than they might have done.

19 thoughts on “Drunken authors”

  1. Could I add Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski to the list? Along with other Narcotics, Thompson forged a very successful career out of getting leathered and going “gonzo” with his journalism, whereby you get so involved in a story that you almost become part of it. As for Bukowski, he can be seen talking about his worst hangover here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFnDvMNHeos. Thompson died at 67, while Bukowski lived on until the respectable age of 73. I cannot say that alcohol and drugs did anything to preserve their lives, but their writing did something to preserve their memory.

    1. Yeah – they are both excellent contenders – I considered they were more in the ‘drugs’ column rather than in the ‘drink’ column though. William S Burroughs also belongs in the junkie column too of course, as anyone who has waded through Naked Lunch will attest.

      1. IIRC, Bukowski was told to stop drinking–he’d had an ulcer or something, and the doctor told him that if he didn’t quit, he’d die. As soon as he got out of the hospital, Bukowski started drinking to see what would happen.

        One of the lesser known writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Wallace Thurman?) had TB, and was told, “stop drinking, or die.” He started in, promptly suffered a hemorrhage, and died with a look of incredulity on his face.

  2. Most of the Victorians did drink and drugs: Collins, Browning, Coleridge, Byron, the list goes on and on. And on. There’s definitely a link between drink, drugs and massive intelligence, creativity,and artistic ability. Well, that’s my excuse.

    1. Also the stigma involving drugs wasn’t around then of course – there’s that period up to the First World War known as ‘the great binge’ when pretty much anything went and you could buy hampers from posh grocers which included morphine and needles.

    1. When you’re right you’re right! Very long list. Mostly men though notice! In defence of Raymond Carver, though he was a terrible lush he didn’t touch a drop in the last ten years of his life. (Then died of lung cancer cos he was still smoking)

  3. Eugene O’Neill drank, then quit drinking. Bukowski really admired Canadian poet Al Purdy. Margaret Atwood said that Al would do things like pee on her car as a practical joke. You can bet he was probably half-cut when he thought of that one.

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