“A drinker with a writing problem,” Behan billed himself. And Dublin’s great playwright did both with two fists. Setting up his typewriter in his favorite pub, McDaid’s, a pint of plain and a bottle of Jameson at his side, he banged out brutal, funny plays about prisoners and patriots, such as The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. It wasn’t long before this bear of a man’s fame spread beyond Ireland: he was the toast of Broadway in 1961, and his plastered appearances on The Jack Paar Show are the stuff of legend.
Anyone who has ever seen Guided by Voices in concert knows the on-stage antics of “Uncle Bob.” Last time I saw the band, Pollard was sucking down beer after beer from song one, and by the latter stages of the set he was pulling lustily off a vodka bottle. By show’s end he was slurring so badly you could barely understand his words. But it was a glorious noise. Some more-abstemious rock critics have wrung their hands, offering armchair psychoanalysis. “He’s running from something, trying to black out the insecurity and stage fright and god knows what else. It’s like he thinks it’s the brew that turns him into a superhero rock star,” wrote one. Bullshit.
“Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.” Despite his copious appetites, despite reaching for the bottle immediately following a near-fatal bleeding ulcer suffered at age 35, despite the havoc drink wreaked on his craggy face and prodigious gut (a girlfriend once vomited after having sex with him), Bukowski had endurance as well as talent. After decades of near-constant booze, beer, and wine, the “poet laureate of skid row” lived to the ripe old age of 74.
The quintessence of the functioning alcoholic. But he didn’t just function: he kicked Nazi ass! As he was winning World War II, Churchill drank steadily from morning to bedtime. He would regularly start the day with a scotch and soda or two, or sometimes a whole bottle of wine. He kept it rolling through lunch. Dinner was more of the same. One American official described an evening with the great man: “A varied and noble procession of wines with which I could not keep pace — Champagne, port, brandy, Cointreau: Winston drank a good deal of all, and ended with two glasses of whiskey and soda.”
The author of Lucky Jim and The Old Devils was also the author of On Drink, How’s Your Glass, and Everyday Drinking. He “wrote about booze to salvage something from all the hours he devoted to it,” his son Martin later wrote in his own memoir, Experience. Those days and nights were spent fiddling with “the heated wine glass, the chilled cream poured over the back of a spoon, the mint leaves and the cucumber juice, the strips of orange peel, the rims of salt, the squeezers and the strainers.” Alas, the prolificacy and quality of Amis’s writing diminished as the intake increased and the drunken stumbles got worse.