'The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey'
By Lawrence Osborne
Crown Publishers

Lawrence Osborne is a serious drinker. Not for him the tepid high of beer or the distraction of companionship. Osborne wants strong spirits and a dark and empty bar in which to drink them. With beer pubs and cocktail culture on the rise, this is not an unreasonable or even unusual request, but the author insists on difficulty. Like a shambling crusader, he goes on a pub crawl across the Middle East, seeking out stirred drinks in countries where alcohol is forbidden. He sits at the bar between the West and the East, freedom and restraint, the wet and the dry, and finds two cultures on the verge of a brawl.

Osborne's working thesis is that the mind of a teetotaler will never comprehend the mind of a drinker and vice versa. One is compelled by a rigidity that forestalls experience; the other by a restlessness that demands it. But what kind of experience? Blackouts, half-drowning in hotel pools, and gray unsteady mornings are the through-line of Osborne's journey. The settings and the author's reliance on liquor provide the stakes. "The possibility is very real that . . . you will be instantly decapitated by a nail bomb," Osborne observes of drinking in Islamabad.

As entertaining as this all is, the book gains considerable momentum and amplitude. Osborne gives you the origins of liquors revered and obscure as well as grimly appealing scenes of far-flung bars. Along the way, he nimbly parses politics, religion, and the chaotic nature of history itself in relation to drink. It's a bit blurry, but comfortably so.