A Man’s Guide to Drinking

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Notes from the late Jim Harrison on a lifetime of beer, wine, booze, and old-fashioned bad behavior.

It all began early with stolen sips. More often than not we had no whiskey in our home because my family couldn’t afford it, except during the holiday season, when a few bottles would arrive as gifts. Even beer was an occasional weekend matter, but certainly not often, maybe once a month. In the summer my uncles Walt and Arty recently home from World War II and bent on sedation, would bring out to our cabin a bottle of Four Roses and a case of A&P beer, the latter costing a couple of dollars. The beer was usually drunk while catching enough fish for supper, and the whiskey was rationed out through a long evening of poker and a gambling board game called Tripoley.

My two ounces of beer in a juice glass tasted harsh and wheaty and were followed by an unpleasant burp. The untouchable whiskey had a hollow stink similar to sticking your head into a big pipe at the oil-equipment storage yard near our home. All the adults drank and smoked, talking randily, terribly glad to have come home form the war alive, though scarcely in one piece. Spending the entirety of the war in the Navy in the South Pacific is something not fairly represented by books, even less so by movies. It shows itself best in the faces I remember from fifty years ago, stricken faces of people laboriously trying to resume life.

I suppose the point is that if you spend your days behind a shovel or in an office grinding your mental teeth, alcohol is the rite of passage to your time off, the rest of your life that takes place when not getting your living, the evenings and weekends spent in the constitutionally entitled pursuit of happiness.

Happy is the word, though its dimensions are muddy indeed. The boy notes immediately that the sips make him feel a little dumb, though no unpleasantly so. The beer clearly doesn’t taste as good as a Heath bar or fried meat, so he comes to understand alcohol as a mysterious medicine that he willingly takes to become dumb and happy, a pleasure certainly not equal to playing with his weenie in the outhouse behind the cabin at the edge of the woods.

Years later I would think of this privy when I read the Yeats line “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement”. Ironies abound, though they are only slowly learned. If the adults drink too much and laugh too loudly late into the night, they are quite miserable in the morning. Peeking down from the cabin loft I once saw my lovely bare-breasted aunt Barbara holding her head in her hands and saying, “Goddamit, I’ve got a hangover.” The breasts diverted me from the idea that beer and whiskey could cause pain.

On my mother’s side of the family, the Swedes, there is no visible sign of the effects of alcohol except in Great-uncle Nelse, a wonderful smelly old bachelor who lives in the woods and curls up on the ground of the lilac grove after drinking too much. To say that Swedes are nondemonstrative is an understatement. Salt and pepper are adequate conditions for a lifetime. The only discernible glitch in the drinking of Guckenheimer whiskey, the very cheapest brand, is that Grandpa has the tendency to cheat on the pinochle score if he drinks too much of it, and also might miss the spittoon with his chaw, though only by critical inches. Years later, in a state of truly melancholy homesickness, I tried to order a shooter of Guckenheimer at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel and the bartender thought it was the funniest thing possible.

My boyhood friend David Kilmer had ready access to whisky because his father was a well-heeled doctor in our little town who also owned a cabin down the shore. We stole some for our camp in the woods; the Scotch tasted like laundry day, though it seemed to work as a mosquito repellent. It was also good for starting a campfire. We buried the empty bottle with a stolen medical book that dealt with uterine cancer and contained decidedly nonsexy pictures.

The first time I got drunk was at seven in the evening on a New Year’s Eve. My mother made me get in a hot bath, where I vomited my thirteen-year-old heart out. This experience drove me to religion and athleticism. As a high school sophomore I was second in the county-wide half-mile. I could chin myself a hundred times with one arm. I was profoundly mediocre at softball, baseball, basketball, and football. Losing an eye to a childhood injury does not help in these sports. I developed a size 19 neck by the relentless swiveling of my head to see what object or person was going to hit me next. I turned to art and literature, which everyone knows are paths conveniently lubricated by alcohol. When I was a senior in high school, buried din the glories of James Joyce, a friend of mine and I stole two cases of Haig & Haig Pinch Scotch whisky out of a rich man’s garage. More than forty years later, I still can’t touch Scotch, unless nothing else is available. As William Faulkner, a noble boozer, said, “Between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch.” I hopefully snuck some of this Haig & Haig into a girlfriend’s pop at a party. “A dog pissed in my drink!” she screeched. Her undies stayed on.

Another friend got drunk with a woman and broke his dick. There was a lot of blood in the backseat of the car. He was a football star and we lost the Big Game he missed. Naturally, a lot of gossip followed, but no one teased him, because he was the toughest guy in school and could drink a six-pack in fifteen minutes, a practice that makes one careless about taking aim in sex.

This is all the etiology of something that apparently didn’t quite become a disease in my case. The disease model for alcoholism is frequently in dispute. It is simply true enough for some and not for others. People lie mightily about sex, money, and drinking.

With money, you say you make either more or less than you do, depending on the situation. If you are in the company of less-fortunate friends who might want yet another loan, you imply you are not doing all that well. In conversations in which sex is featured, there is the incursion of everyone’s fantasy life. Rarely, if ever, does anyone say, “I was sleeping with this famous model, but I only had a half-master, the head of which turned back and said, ‘Nope’.” Talk about alcohol is shot through with a rich lore of queasiness. Five martinis become three, and three bottles of wine become two, in contrast to everyone’s earlier years, when our essential loutishness caused us to bray, “I drank a case of Schlitz.” Of course midway through the third six-pack we had fallen asleep with a half piece of pizza sticking out of our mouth. By dawn eager flies had gathered.

The other day at a local bar while I was having a single Absolut on the rocks with a twist (some days I have two), a friend told me about his annual physical. This is a moderately expensive procedure for a man of sixty, so he thought, Why not be honest? When the doctor, pro forma, asked him how many drinks he had a week, my friend said, “About one hundred.” This is not an acceptable answer, needless to say. “You know, some days just a few pops,” he said, “but then a couple of days a week I’ll have thirty or so, then taper off to fifteen.” This is a remarkably sturdy fellow, of middle-European descent with a biggish body, no liver or kidney damage. I don’t know about his brain, though I did considerable study in brain physiology for a novel. In conversation he functions mentally at least as well as, maybe better than, our president. He is the rare man who can drink an amount that would be slowly lethal to 99 percent of us. Many try, many die, as it were.

Everything I say about alcohol is deeply suspect but hopefully pungent. Suddenly, life has become quite full of mono-ethic ninnies and nannies who address life solely as a problem to be solved. Just the other day a man who had lost a close relative to Timothy McVeigh said after witnessing the execution that he didn’t feel any “closure or healing.” If someone doesn’t comprehend that this kind of language rape is brutally stupid, there is nowhere to go with him. Seeing this reminded me of a time several years ago, in the depths of a particular Hollywood mud bath, where late one evening I was watching part of a local late-night TV show wherein a rather attractive young woman wept tears of rage over the idea that people were smoking cigarettes. It developed that she was an aromatherapist who didn’t go to bars; neither did the vast majority of Californians who eventually voted to bank smoking in bars. What are to make of this? I think it was the writer Christopher Hitchens who pointed out that the cigarette hysteria began at the same time as the decline of Communism. If they drink at all, these mono-ethic types have embouchures locked permanently into the word chardonnay, though last November a lady who winced at my Sapphire martini and American Spirit cigarette managed to say merlot with muddy diction. Meanwhile, one must beware of the gaggle of amateur therapists who have recently come to life. Whether it’s your alcohol, cigarettes, or food, they are going to try to piss in it.

Back to the personal drawing board, the brainpan herself, on whose delicate feminine tissue my memories are less-than-indelibly etched. However, on the evolutionary curve, truly painful experiences are memorable so that we don’t repeat them. Once after a very hard night up on Halibut Point in Massachusetts, my young daughter told me when I woke up that flies has been “dancing” in my mouth. I recalled a few lobsters with butter, chased by cut-rate Old Thompson whiskey. Having lost several members of my family to drunk drivers and seen all around me the destruction caused to families by acute alcoholism in either parent, I am quite aware of the dangers. Alcohol can be Bosnia or the Congo flaring with a million machetes, while marijuana is more on the order of the fabled Mary Poppins. I was never good at getting stoned because it made me drink to get over the feeling of being stoned. Marijuana also gave me the desire for cheeseburgers, a food item I don’t normally touch. Fatty foods and butter kill millions every year. It is clear that drunk driving, a crime I’ve never been convicted of, kills about fifteen thousand people a year. It is less clear why sober drivers kill twice that number. Of course there are a great deal more of them, but if the propaganda is correct they should be perfect. People have all the rational skills of Brownian motion.

Two decades ago, in my drinking prime (a matter of volume), my pain threshold was such that I could endure hangovers and still function as a writer. This became less true in u early fifties, and as time continued to pass, which it seems to do, I lost the ability totally. Evidently I was far more devoted to my art than to alcohol and developed sensors to check myself. A friend and novelist, Tom McGuane, once said to me, “You can’t quit anything until it gets in your way.” He also said that alcoholism was the writer’s black-lung disease. Historically, we miners of the consciousness have had a decided propensity in this direction. Walker Percy, both writer and non-practicing doctor, thought of it as a “reentry problem” wherein alcohol could ease you back from the imaginary world of your work to the supposed real world where you did your actual living. This is obviously true in small doses, but becomes less and less true as the doses get larger. And at a certain, specific point it becomes not true at all. It is not pleasant to watch people hit themselves hard in the temples with this ancient hammer.

My total turnaround was rather slow in coming but finally accomplished. The signal event, a few years ago, was when I sat in a La-Z-boy chair my wife loathes and stared down a fifth of VO Canadian, a longtime favorite that had become a slowish death of sorts. I simply loved the flavor, and a tear formed when I poured it out in the sink after gazing at it for several hours. It’s difficult to comprehend the difficulty of breaking a habit so easily acquired.

Long ago I misplaced the list I used to keep of writers I had known who had had to quit drinking to stay alive. I remember the number was up to nineteen, and it must be nearly double that by now. Perhaps it begins with alcohol’s dispelling the essential loneliness of a solo art, and then for many the habit gets out of hand and swallows the life. I wish I had never seen a certain photo of Faulkner, taken after he had emerged from shock treatments in an asylum for his binge drinking. In the photo he looked like a bruised purple plum, or an old picture of a hanged man with a posse looking on telling jokes while their hoses shuffled in the dust.

Ultimately writers aren’t anecdotally all that interesting. The truly bad behavior is a convenience, a permissive indulgence with a superstructure of shabby myth. For instance, Hemmingway scholars haven’t quite been able to face the fact that his accident-proneness was a result of getting pie-eyed everyday after his morning’s work. In the time around the liberation of Paris, Hemingway liked to have a magnum of champagne for breakfast in his quarters at the Ritz. At nineteen I had to sit on the same bar stool at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in the Village where Dylan Thomas had drunk his fatal eighteen straight double shots; from there he was taken to Saint Vincent’s, where he could not be revived. Literary history is littered with the iconography of booze, and coming to maturity as poets in the 1960’s, so many of us seemed to think it was obligatory to become willing victims of the disease model of the writer and alcohol. It was all a wonderfully sloppy comedy of stuporous poets and novelists writing as fast as possible before imminent death or decrepitude. The media and public at large seem overfond of these spectacles of disintegration, which confirm in them the wisdom of their own abstinence. An artist’s gift of perhaps excessive consciousness includes a need to get rid of this overflow.

We are all specifically encapsulated in what the French think of as la comedie humaine, in which our behavior might strive for the original but is destined for failure. When a country song says, “There’s a dark and troubled side of life,” many of us actually see it right, left, back, and front, on the periphery of vision, but then tragedy classically requires that people of high degree war with enemies, fate, and destiny. Students of literature understand that tragedy doesn’t include hangovers. No matter how acute, the pain of hangovers can’t rise above farce.

I was sympathetic to a friend whom the police identified by his room key when he was found sleeping in the desert outside of Las Vegas. Another friend found himself in the Los Angeles airport after having a few pops the day before in a West Side bar in New York City. Having never blacked out, I find this phenomenon interesting. One of the primary hoys of my life has always been sleeping, which stops me well short of the blacking-out phenomenon. I’m a bit of a piker, as it were, and life’s secret forces after a bottle of wine drive me toward my bed. The terror of blacking out should stop anyone in his damp tracks. The feathers on your chin mean that you ate the parakeet.

Doubtless, Western culture would suffer great damages if not the correctiv3e of hangovers. The origin of the riot-producing English Gin Tax centuries ago was simply that gin was too cheap and people weren’t showing up for work. It’s no fun to be in the Westwood Marquis, waking up for an early meeting at Columbia Pictures (now Sony) and, due to hangover foibles, remembering all of the lyrics to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”. In your mind’s eye you can see Nancy herself prancing around the stage on Ed Sullivan in her high, white boots. You’re remembering not lines from Yeats, Lorca, or Whitman but only this fungoid song, as ugly as the carrot juice you ordered as a nostrum for breakfast, a song as ugly as the toilet bowl into which you poured the carrot juice rather than out the window so that someone far below could have said, “My God, carrot rain.”

Hangovers have all the charm of a rattlesnake cracking its jaws as it swallows a toad. It’s June now, and my last hangover was in November on a book tour in New York City when Mario Batali cooked us a nineteen-course meal, which I wrote about for this magazine. On the way to La Guardia at dawn I meditated on the amount of effort it had taken the magnums of wine to penetrate through the food, but they had gotten the job done. During a plane hangover, you’re always flying solo, in an inward self-referential trance full of the whimsicality of modest self-pity — modest because the wound is self-inflicted. Doubtless if the plane lands upside down you will be the only fatality. Both murderers and hangovers are deeply sentimental, more so than Mothers Day or first love. The lost sock, the boiled-over oatmeal, the defective coffee maker are taken personally. Self-pity must be the most injurious of the faux-literacy emotions. Mope and slump in your sludge; your brain chemistry is a canned soup of insincere regret. The big boy on book tour conveniently forgets the decades when no publisher bothered asking him to tour.

In my forties, I turned to wine with a passion that I had offered it only sporadically. Obsession can’t be eliminated, only replaced. I’m clearly a daffy sort, and one summer I tested thirty-four Cotes du Rhones in search of a house wine I could afford. Since then some of my favorites – Guigal, Vacqueras, and Domaine Tempier Bandol – have risen in price, but I’ve decided I deserve them.

Unlike booze, good wine resonates so broadly it draws in the world that surrounds us. The effects of it are slow enough that you can check yourself, an absolutely vital talent if you drink. As an old Zen dictum says, you must find yourself where you already are, and the disorienting effect of hard alcohol makes this unlikely. Good wine increases the best aspects of camaraderie and sweetens the tongue for conversation. It softens the world’s sharpest edges, in contrast to the blunting power of booze. In short, you don’t become dumb at a blinding pace, and you mood swings from gentle to gentler.

When I come into an aspen glade in May and find several dozen morel mushrooms, I begin concoct a meal, perhaps the chicken thighs sautéed with wild leeks and morels devised by Tom Colicchio of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, and also of Craft. If I was making the same dish with elk I’d drink a big Tuscan vintage, or my all-time favorite financially reachable wine, Domaine Tempier. Mild danger lurks: Before we left our casita on the Mexican border this spring, I drank an assortment of fine reds with sweet-breads fresh abalone, doves, quail, and elk. You can pay two hundred bucks to a doctor to find out this combination might bring on gout, but you already know that. For some of us the inner greedy child is at work right out there on our skins.

Now I approach sheer pleasure with a blended elbow, but not an upturned nose. I could have become a wine snob, but I didn’t. The escape was narrow, but my salvation was several near-bankruptcies, and then quitting the screenplay business dew me up short of the income required to maintain a good home wine cellar, the yearly purchases that ensure that in ten years and more I will be stopping on the way home from the office for one of the syrupy California “cabs” so favorited by nitwits. I admit I still have some magnums of Mount Eden from the seventies, and superb Joseph Heitzes from the same period, but California wines are not my métier. Is this because California has become a state where you can’t smoke a cigarette with a glass of wine in peace? Is it partly due to the ridiculous rating system of the Wine Spectator, which occasionally leads one to believe that major advertisers are getting a break? Is it because some flatulent venture capitalist has announced that his recently acquired Napa vineyard will compete with Lafite Rothchild?

Money can distort the buying and drinking of wine just as it distorts art in the gallery and auction businesses. The most frequent question is not if the wine or art is good, but how much did it cost you and what is it worth now? Money easily demeans our taste in art and wine with that bull-market attitude of “Look at me, I can afford to turn a four-hundred-dollar bottle of La Tache into peepee when the whim comes over me.”

I learned win by failure and shameful waste. Back before the yuppie salad days, I earned a bunch of money, as much as “high in the six figures” one year. There were a few early lessons buying English casino stock and Australian oil stock, both of which became worth nothing at all, like an empty whiskey bottle. I can’t tell you where the money went, as my brain lacks orientation; I have feeling that it simply took a bus out of town.

I tend toward the comic view of these years. The pre-bedtime line of coke called for a vintage Margaux. The fifty-case deal I made with a man selling his collection, more than half of it Premier Grand Crus, literally flew out of the basement. The seller preferred a private party to a restaurant, confiding that he was looking for someone who would take care of these wonderful wines that he had taken years amassing.

Some of it was well used with friends who were aware of what they were drinking during the massive feast of woodcock, grouse, and venison. The matter stops me just short of confirming a sense of my total boorishness in that period, and my oldest daughter had the sense to hide some old de la Tour d’Yquems, and Lafites for her future wedding, but essentially I was an untethered swine in a fertile truffle patch.

The few great vintages I have left I reserve for the fall, during bird season. Otherwise, to put them back in reach I go to France on book business once a year and mope around prayerfully. The French are relentlessly up for a special occasion, and when a book is doing well, my French publisher, Christian Bourgois, tends to order Cote-Rotie from the seventies; if I visit Lulu Peyraud in Bondol, I get to drink the older Domaine Tempeir, which has somehow disappeared from my cellar through enthusiasm. Like the spotting of a rare bird, I remember the entire ambience and surroundings of a great wine. The magnum of 1990 Mercurey Clos des Barraults at Gerard Oberle’s in Burgundy includes the morning trip to the market in Moulin, the roses in the yard, his Alsatian dog, Eliot, barking at the neighbor’s Charolais cow, the cooking of two lobes foie gras, Gerard’s so-so singing of Purcell’s “Come, Ye Sons of Art” as he served the meal. On the other hand, with booze the most memorable aspects were the hangovers.

Years ago I had a short correspondence with the fine American writer Raymond Carver. I remember thanking him for a warm review he had given me at a particularly low point in my life. When he wrote back he apologized because he couldn’t remember writing the review or much of anything from those years. And this, from a grand talent, perhaps a genius, seems sad indeed. Life is so short you want to remember all of it, bad and good.

It has occurred to me that I’m drawn to wine for the same reason that fishing and bird hunting have been lifelong obsessions. The pleasure is in the path, the search for something good; finding an drinking a fine, reasonably priced wine is similar to catching a trout in an unlikely eddy of a river, or a two grouse in the bag on a cold, rainy October morning, it is celebratory rather than sedating, a nod to the realities of existence rather than an erasure.