Writing on the Rocks: A Reader’s Guide to Serious Drinking

Mj 618_348_writing on the rocks a reading list for drinking

Literature is flooded with drinks and drinkers. You can get a drinking education by reading it: Hemingway may have introduced you to absinthe, Joyce to sloe gin, and Bukowski to alcohol-infused misery. And that’s just the fiction: there are also drinking memoirs and drinking treatises, boozy social histories, and cocktail bibles. 

When you ask Jack McGarry, co-founder and operating partner of New York's The Dead Rabbit, which, this July, won the title of "World's Best Bar" and this October published their own cocktail guide,The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual, about his own favorites, he points to Dave Wondrich's cocktail classics — Imbibe! and Punch —but confirms that bartenders, as a group, seem to have a taste for the moderns. "A lot of industry figures love literature from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce," he says. "Basically, any books that have some form of alcoholic endorsement."

And so we've sorted through the drunken canon and beyond to pull our favorites, both fiction and non. Some books are celebrations of the drink; others are cautionary tales. And while several are staples of literary drunkenness — we wondered, briefly, whether it was even necessary to explicitly include Bukowski (isn’t it implied?) — others are newer additions to the menu.

Hemingway el floridita bar

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Later, at the Bar, Rebecca Barry
In ten intertwining short stories, Barry introduces us to the regulars at Linda's Tavern, a watering hole in rural upstate New York where everybody knows a lot more than your name: it's a refuge from loneliness, a place "full of music and drinking, where bad behavior within reason was perfectly acceptable." And there is bad behavior: the tight-knit cast of regulars fall in and out of love; they gossip, they drink too much, they fight, they sleep with their exes. It’s a melancholy novel, warm and unfussy and perfect for reading with whiskey in hand.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
Recounting his now-legendary days as a young man in 1920s Paris, Hemingway's memoir chronicles his happy years of reading and writing and drinking among the expat literati. He sips "fragrant, colorless alcohols" with Gertrude Stein in the afternoon; he road trips (amusingly, eventfully) and day-drinks with a troubled F. Scott Fitzgerald; he gossips over sherry (dry) with James Joyce. It is hard not to wish you had been there with them, and it is hard not to imagine that if you had been, you would be brilliant, too.

BUtterfield 8, John O’Hara
Fran Lebowitz called him "the real Fitzgerald" (if he's underrated, she hypothesized in The Paris Review, it’s because "every single person who knew him hated him"), and in BUtterfield 8, he demonstrates why. He's master observer of American society, and his portrait of Prohibition-era debauchery, told through the fall of beautiful and doomed Gloria Wandrous, is as sharp as it is brutal. Unlike some of his peers, O’Hara doesn’t romanticize drinking; “his alcoholics,” notes critic Lorin Stein, "are not tragic heroes" but rather "ordinary bourgeois, for whom hangover cures and cocktail recipes are the safest possible topics of conversation." (The novel almost certainly has fiction’s best discussion of shaken vs. stirred.) 

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh
Skewering the vapid socialites of interwar London, Waugh's 1930 novel follows a pack of Bright Young People as they flit from party to party to stave off the incredible meaningless boredom of being alive, filling the gossip pages and stylishly self-destructing. But underneath the champagne-soaked hilarity — and the novel is practically slapstick — there’s a central core of despair. Pairs well with an air of detached hopelessness, and a glass of champagne. 

Post Office, Charles Bukowski
Depending on your vantage point, Bukowksi's entire oeuvre is either an ode to drinking or a cautionary tale. With Post Office, we're introduced to his fictional alter-ego, the hard-drinking, gambling, womanizing, generally miserable Henry Chinaski, who’s taken a seasonal mail carrier job on the recommendation of "the drunk up on the hill." Relentlessly grim and relentlessly boozy — Chinaski is either actively drunk or recovering from it — Post Office, which spans 17 years and is closely autobiographical, is as hilarious as it is bleak.

The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
It's really difficult to go wrong when picking a good Philip Marlowe story to accompany your gimlet or glass of Blanton's with a few rocks thrown in, but for sake of argument, the book that Raymond Chandler considered his best, the one that Robert Altman famously cast Elliot Gould in for one of the best noir adaptations ever put to film, isn't a bad one to pick up.

In the Drink, Kate Christensen
There is a moment (perhaps all too familiar?) when post-collegiate directionlessness threatens to become a permanent condition, and it is in the throes of this particular crisis that we meet Claudia Steiner: 29, broke, once an aspiring journalist, now a miserable secretary-cum-ghostwriter for a best-selling aging socialite. “I’d begun to take a perverse pleasure in seeing just how bad my life could get before the whole thing blew and, as an interesting corollary, just how severely I could punish myself for having been so arrogant as to think that my untapped potential and vague desire to succeed were of interest to anyone but me,” she observes. Booze proves a useful tool for both projects, and in Claudia, Christensen has created one of literature’s most under-appreciated (and likable) drinkers. 

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
Widely acknowledged to have the best hangover in literary history — Martin Amis called his father the "laureate of hangovers," and it’s an honor well-earned — Lucky Jim proves that the whole enterprise of drunkenness can be wickedly funny. (From the passage in question: "His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum." There’s more, and it’s even better.) The 1954 novel follows the hapless Jim Dixon, a lecturer in medieval history at a provincial English college, in a disastrous relationship, trying desperately not to get fired, and it’s still considered one of the funniest — if not the funniest — books of all time.

Drinking with Men, Rosie Schaap
A good neighborhood bar is more than just a place to drink. The drinking, in fact, is secondary — you can, Schaap points out, drink anywhere. "But a good bar?… It’s more like a community center, for people — men and women — who like to drink." Schaap is a life-long regular: It is bars, she argues, that have made her who she is. But Drinking with Men is more than a memoir. It's a memoir with a mission: "to defend the great tradition of regularhood," and not just for men but for everyone.

Mj 618_348_tk martini

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The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer
"Long before it legally served me, the bar saved me," writes the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. "An only child, abandoned by my father, I needed a family, a home, and men." Dickens (later turned Publicans), where his uncle tended bar, provides all three and more: it's an anchor, a surrogate father, and a source of continuity. And while this could be hopelessly schmaltzy, it isn't — not by a long shot. It's deeply human, often funny, and — yes — tender, in the best possible way.

M.F.K. Fisher: Musings on Wine and Other Libations, MFK Fisher
John Updike once christened her "poet of the appetites," and here, the legendary food writer lives up to her name. The essays here — collected by Fisher's biographer Anne Zimmerman, drawn from both well-known collections and out-of-print magazines — are indeed poetic, but they’re also unfussy, unpretentious, often practical (“liquor by the case is generally about ten per cent less expensive than by the bottle, and generally it disappears at least ten per cent faster, so you must gauge your own purse and proclivities,” she advises; there are more pearls where that came from) and uniformly delightful.

Proof: The Science of Booze, Adam Rogers
"If you love something," writes Rogers, "you're supposed to ask what makes that thing tick." And with Proof, he demonstrates his love of the fermented and the distilled. By following a "sip of booze on a birth-to-death journey via your tummy," he tackles not only the biology, chemistry, and engineering behind the making of alcohol, but the neuroscience, psychology, and neurobiology that begin to explain what happens when we drink it (because, as Rogers gleefully emphasizes, there’s a lot we still don’t know). His wit and enthusiasm are contagious, and if you were not previously interested in the particulars of yeast, well, as Rogers proves, you’ve been missing out.

Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler
The story of bourbon is the story of America, and this meticulous history of our national spirit, Mitenbuler tracks the evolution of America’s whiskey — both the drink itself and our collective obsession with it — from New World settlers in the 1600s to the current craft distillery boom. As Mitenbuler sees it, bourbon is more than a liquor; it’s a lens. But his project also has eminently practical implications: knowing the history of the bourbon and our attitudes toward it can “clear the marketing fog” and help us drink better (Read an excerpt here) 


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Martini, Straight Up, Lowell Edmunds
"The Martini is the premier American cocktail," Edmunds declares, in no uncertain terms. "It is a permanent fixture of American Life, of the American imagination, of America's image in the rest of the world." It's not just a cocktail; it's a chilled window into our national soul. And as such, Edmunds delightfully gives it the scholarly (and quotable) treatment it deserves, dividing his analysis into seven messages ("Message Five: The martini is optimistic, not pessimistic") and four ambiguities ("Ambiguity Four: The Martini is sensitive — the Martini is tough"). If you’re going to read it with a martini in hand — as would only be appropriate — honor the meticulous scholarship on display here and skip the olives ("they ruin the taste of the drink," he notes, though he'll concede they're "not bad" as complimentary h'ors d'oeuvres).

The A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin
If you're going to read an epic fantasy series, at least read one where there's plenty of wine drinking involved. And boy oh boy do they drink a ton of the stuff in Westeros.

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