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The Pub Wherein Firmin: On Writing Drunk

By Duncan Stuart.

Under the Volcano

“I have resisted temptation for two and a half minutes at least: my redemption is sure.” – Geoffrey Firmin

In a dim corner of my local bus interchange is a pub, a pub wherein I spent a laborious year behind the bar. This pub – let’s call it Pub C – which always teetered precariously on the brink of financial collapse – and maybe actual collapse – was propped up by a set of regulars, countable on one’s fingers. Serving these regulars was my first genuine encounter with alcoholics. Their alcoholism was not the passing alcoholism of university debauchery, the standard three-year crash course in hangover cures and morning after pills. Theirs was a grim and lonely alcoholism, more tragic affliction than youthful miscalculation.

Alcoholics are the ideal literary subject. For it is alcohol, readily available and socially acceptable, that everyone, from the shitkicker upwards, has easy access to. In the pages of literature, it will ruin the lives of consuls, mayors, the already down and out, private investigators and law students to name just a few. Their fall from top to bottom or top-of-the-bottom to bottom-of-the-bottom is a readymade tragedy.

For many writers, it also appears to be a case of writing what you know. J.G Ballard used to have a scotch every hour, on the hour, starting at nine am. He apparently stopped because “he couldn’t take it anymore”. If only his protagonists had such admirable self-control. Writing drunk is supposed to loosen one up. Writing drunk is composition on the piss. There is, however, another meaning of “writing drunk”. One where the intoxication escapes the bodily boundaries of the writer and seeps onto the page. In such cases it is the prose that is pissed; the sentences themselves that are intoxicated. Confused and free-flowing, they begin to lose the regimented clarity of sobriety and slip into the blurred confusion of being on the bend. Write drunk, edit drunk, be drunk. There are, in my mind, two exemplary novels that display this prose. They are Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano (1947) and J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955).

In these novels, the prose aims to reflect the intoxicated and frantic state of their respective protagonists. Under The Volcano follows the last day of ex-consul, ex-husband and alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin. The Ginger Man follows the alcohol and poverty induced misadventures of the infinitely unlikeable Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield. Here is Dangerfield searching his home after his wife, Marion, leaves him:

Feverishly around the house again. Pulling out all the drawers, tearing through the closest. Sewing kit gone, and balls of yarn. No message, no sign. Into the desk. Locked.

And here is one of Firmin’s first interior monologues, shortly after being reunited with his wife, Yvonne:

The tragedy, proclaimed, as they made their way up the crescent of the drive, no less by the gaping potholes in it than by the tall exotic plants, livid and crepuscular through his dark glasses, perishing on every hand of unnecessary thirst, staggering, it almost appeared, against one another, yet struggling like dying voluptuaries in a vision to maintain some final attitude or potency, or of a collective desolate fecundity, the Consul thought distantly, seemed to be reviewed and interpreted by a person walking at his side suffering for him and saying: “Regard: see how strange, how sad, familiar things may be.”

The free flow of thoughts and action in both passages – whether split up harshly (the full stops of Donleavy) or each moment rushing after the last one (the commas of Lowry) – capture the rush of intoxication. It is precisely because alcohol is a depressant that such a rush occurs. The inability to take in the big picture of a place, an event or a moment means that each element must be processed individually and rapidly and insufficiently. We call people who are confused “slow”, but their slowness belies a frenetic interiority.  

*

Every single one of Pub C’s regulars were men. All were strange and wonderful. There was A, a big bear of man, seven stories tall. A never ordered anything outside of a hard set of three drinks: whiskey, tequila and Guinness. He drank only on Fridays: from 7pm to close, without fail. Downing pint after pint of Guinness, never losing his balance or his train of thought, only occasionally his composure. A and I would speak often: he had a predilection for philosophy and knew that I had made an attempt of studying the subject. He once told me, alliteratively, that his three favourite philosophers were Hobbes, Hegel and, obscurely, the Australian political scientist, Hedley Bull.

One might think the drunk has nothing going for him. But often the drunk is a purveyor of culture. It is he who sits alone, brandy in hand, reading Proust in the poorly lit pub at 3pm. It is he who is always seen in the high culture concert halls and the low culture venues, the-same-drink-with a-different-price-point-in-his-hands-both-times, he is the artist as partyer, the writer as the on-the-piss barman, the musician shooting straight jack from his hip. In Under The Volcano Geoffrey Firmin has strong literary pretences. His dream is to write a novel, if he can escape the hell of his reality. He thinks of Baudelaire, argues with his brother Hugh about Tolstoy and world events, and is sore over an unreturned collection of Elizabethan plays – which of course symbolise a much more serious transgression. In The Ginger Man, Dangerfield not only holds the short-lived honour of being a Trinity College Law student, but is forever composing poems and songs on the fly. Indeed, neither Dangerfield nor Firmin are from the lower classes: Firmin is a consul and Dangerfield a wealthy heir.  They are the cultured elite, pissing away their money (almost literally). As Lowry’s novel moves towards it end, Firmin is spending the last of his cash in a bar. The central problem for Dangerfield is his lack of money.

S, a tall man of presumably Asiatic descent – I never asked – with hair down to his ankles, was another regular. He also drank a limited range of drinks: either a vodka lime soda or tequila. Never once a beer. S had a peculiar quality: he was not quiet, but I cannot recall much of what he said outside of pleasant greetings and “the usual”. S also never lost his composure – only once did I see him stumble, unsteady and uncertain, towards the exit. As any drinker will tell you, you will often not realise how drunk you are until you make a big movement. Until you stand up, swing wildly, or begin the exhausting journey towards the exit, an exit whose exact location is always escaping you, always avoiding you, until at last, defeated, you return to the bar.

The process of continually swearing off the drink is a light joke amongst the young struggling through ever worsening hangovers. It becomes a strange ritual for the alcoholic. Firmin puts his glass of strychnine on the floor after thinking to himself that he shall “sober up”. He passes out, but before doing so thinks to himself: “The will of man is unconquerable. Even God cannot conquer it.” He wakes up, “demons nattering into his ears”, the victim of a hangover of hellish proportions, he races down to the bottom of his garden to retrieve a bottle of tequila for the “one drink, the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks”. Shortly after, he now feels in position to “entertain, for a minute, the illusion that all was really normal.” The world is too harsh, and the drink is pharmakon, both the poison and the cure. I cannot leave the pub because I am pissed and so there is nothing left to do but stay there and drink. I have nowhere else to go because I have frayed my relationships, so I go to the pub. My life is exhausted: there is nothing left to do but dance and drink and screw.

This having nowhere else or nowhere better to be often appeared as the driving force of many of the regulars’ presence. There was M, a pleasant, no-bullshit type, with a beard down to his waist and missing teeth. M, once again, limited himself to a handful of drink types. Tequila, the very occasional whiskey and schooner after schooner of the cheapest beer. M was always one of the first in, and always one of the last out. In that brief after work hour, between five and six pm, M would stand at the pub, alone, reading, with the occasional glance upwards to mouth, in disbelief at something he had read or thought or seen, “No way, fuck off.”  Occasionally M would share some piece of private info: he lived with his brother at the other end of town, he despised his job and his colleagues, he saw Iggy Pop live in the nineties.  

There were others. One called ‘Los Manos’ or the hands. This was an ironic nickname that only a certain jovial cruelness can breed; Los Manos had been born without fully developed hands. There was E, who suffered from a skin rash that, as he once revealed to me one night sometime between his fourth and fifth Peroni, covered over fifty percent of his body. This mishmash of misfits made their way in and out of the pub, their voices rising as the night went on and their feet gave way, their knees wobbling under the weight of their collective trauma, until, for a brief moment between bliss and terror (normally between the eighth and the tenth pint), the weight would be lifted and exuberance would replace speech, movement would be unceasing and the descent would begin.

Most of these regulars managed to keep up an appearance of being on top of things. There was one, however, who was a fully-fledged alcoholic. G was a Yank, said he used to be in the navy, though occasionally he said it was the air force. I remember my first encounter with G. I had been given the shitkicker job – door – and was sitting idle and cold in the exposed street, no company except for the hydraulic sighs of the orange and green buses as they spilled their guts into the interchange then filled up again, their rubber jaws snapping shut with a hideous shriek. There I sat, bored and numb, when I was accosted by what I thought was Sandy Martin in a leather jacket. Before I could react, I was treated to a monologue, something like:

Oh shit kid, you new? Ah, what’s on in the pub tonight? Music? Yeah what kind? Progressive? Rock? Oh man, let me tell you something kiddo, back in the day – hey you know, uh, you know Frank Zappa? – oh what a crazy band, oh man, oh yeah I love Zappa and the Fathers of Creation – let me tell you I saw Frank Zappa – you know Frank Zappa? – Back in ‘72. I was so fucking drunk, let me tell you. Frank Zappa and the mothers. Fuck me, what a time, huh? Oh yeah, what’s the damage? 10? Too high? How about 5? Nah just kidding, I always pay. Hey what’s your name? You a Yank? Oh ho ho.

With alcoholics, it is always hard to tell if they have become alcoholics because of certain traits or if these certain traits are part of being an alcoholic, or, indeed, both. Is the alcoholic’s paranoia what has led them to their decrepit state, or are they paranoid because they are an alcoholic? Is it their irresponsibility that drives them to drink – oh, I fucked it up again, I just can’t do it – or are they irresponsible because they drink? Is the pulsating, inescapable desire for drink a result of too many hard days, too many hard knocks? Or is it chemical dependency?

G was chaos. Nearing 60, divorced and estranged from his kids, G roamed the bar, harassing women a third of his age. His leather hands would touch, relentlessly, shoulders and backs and arms. They would brush past ribs and skim hair. In a busy pub it would be an accident, nothing outright, but over time a picture of something more sinister and intentional came into focus. I recall one incident in particular. A woman was at the bar, waiting for me to finish making her drink, which I was no doubt doing incorrectly, when I heard the nonstop, rolling and loose speech patterns of G, coated with the hoarse sound of his alcoholic’s throat: Tom Waits on speed, his pronunciation coating every expression in nettles. The poor girl, who now had her drink, had paid and had received her change, was stuck at the bar as this verbose process of terror began. G took a breath, the girl (still poor) turned to leave and G’s rant began again:

Well you know I was in the navy for several years. It sure was hard work, I’m as fit as a bison, hey, you know uh, you know uh the THE EAGLES? [The girl did not.] Oh yeah, well I, uh, I, uh, I, uh saw them back in uh, 1976. Oh yeah, desperado, come to your sense, you can never leave. Ah yeah, what do you do, eh?

I had, at this point learnt G’s one weakness and it was simple: he only really gave a shit about talking about his time in the navy. Not much of a military historian, I grasped for the only figurative straw available:

“Hey, you ever read Pynchon’s V? It’s all about the Navy.” In the few moments it took G to figure out what I was saying – ‘punch hit?’, ‘python?’, ‘pinch on?’ – the girl had escaped, and G shambled back, mumbling, to his end of the bar.

G’s desire to constantly attempt to flirt – i.e. harass – women a third his age was not, I am now convinced, merely the behaviour of an alcoholic sex pest. G was not whole. A co-worker, often given the open shift, told me of the times they had seen G come into the pub as soon as the door opened, money (he always paid in cash) in unsteady hand, sweat beginning to ooze from his skin, as a dam leaks before it bursts, tears welling in the corner of his eyes. The sound of the beer flowing out of the taps and into the glass – a soft delicate sound, often hard to hear – would still his quaking soul. He had apparently been banned from almost every pub except, for some reason, ours.

G had it together just enough to know he was on thin ice. Every time he was cut off, told to have some water or told not to do something, he would soon come back to the bar. “Hey man, you know I was just a-kidding, I don’t really think that.” Or: “Yeah sorry about that, mate.” He would often confide to me that, “You know the female bartenders, they uh, they don’t really get it, but you get it, mano-a-mano, eh?” I’m not sure I did really get it.

There’s a paranoiac manner to the alcoholic. Maybe they know they are testing everyone’s patience and they’re just unsure when that patience is going to run out. Perhaps it is the result of a crippling self-doubt, a self-hatred or a depression. Both things are perhaps causes and effects of their drinking. And finally, perhaps the paranoiac outlook is a way of creating distance: they don’t truly believe they deserve good things and must sabotage all such things. So Firmin towards the end of Under The Volcano turns on Yvonne and Hugh, accusing his brother of romantic interest in his ex-wife:

“Stay where you bloody are,” ordered the Consul. “Of course, I see the romantic predicament you two are in. But even if Hugh makes the most of it again it won’t be long, it won’t be long, before he realises he’s only one of the hundred or so other ninney-hammers with gills like codfish and veins like racehorses – prime as goats all of them, hot as monkeys, salt as wolves in pride! No, one will be enough…”

Firmin follows this accusation by fleeing the scene and heading to another bar. In The Ginger Man Dangerfield, whose wife Marion is about to leave him and has just been refused service in a bar, rushes through the Dublin streets in paranoiac rage:

So I’m Drunk. Strangled Christ. Drunk. Nothing to do but suffer this insult as I have suffered so many others. It will die away in a few years, no worry about that. I’m going on a tram ride. Dalkey. That nice little town out there on the rocks with pretty castles and everything. A place where I will move when the quids are upon me. I hate this country. I think I hate this country more than anything else I know. Drunk. That son of a bitch, take him up by the ears from behind that bar and beat him against the ceiling. But must forget the whole thing. I’m at the bottom of the pile. Admit that I’m in such a state that I can barely think. But I won’t be insulted. Incredible outrage.

The Ginger Man

*

G would often come into the pub with stacks of cheap discounted meals – the ones they sell from food courts at the end of the day – and sit there, alone, drink in hand, plastic bag of rotting lunches in front of him, staring into space, or the crowd. He came in on Sundays with a loaf of white bread and a container of frozen steaks. Instead of stories about the navy, I was treated to a forty-minute disquisition on steak sandwiches. He once showed me a photo of one of his sons, but he seemed deeply unsure of certain bits of key information. Was his son still in college, or had he graduated? Still living in Brunswick, or had he moved to Collingwood? These details escaped G, though he never had trouble pronouncing or recalling the names of any of our drinks.

Alcohol and men are a strange combination. I remember a glorious summer, my penultimate year of university. I sat in the garden of my share house, my skin roasting underneath the sun. From my housemate’s room, which faced the garden, the dulcet chords of ‘The Boatman’s Call’, a particularly sombre Nick Cave record, played. My housemate could be seen pouring himself drinks at all manner of times during the day. I must have seen him, that summer, pour a thousand drinks and listen to that album a thousand times. Not once, did he ever say anything to me or anyone else. Several months later, and from someone else, I found out his then girlfriend had begun to ghost him and that a close family friend of his had committed suicide. His distress was silent, and that silence had been filled with consumption, oral and aural. Sometimes I wondered about the regulars at the bar. Why were they there and what passed through their mind in those few seconds between the sigh, the chink of the glass on the bar, the raising of the shoulders, the meeting of the eyes and my forever obliging question, which has only one answer: “Another?”

At the end of Under The Volcano Firmin sits in a pub, alone, drinking and smoking and reading the letters his wife has sent him, which he has forgotten and left unanswered.

“It is this silence that frightens me – this silence –” The Consul read this sentence over and over again, the same sentence, the same letter, all of the letters vain as those arriving on shipboard in port for one lost as sea, because he found some difficulty in focusing, the words kept blurring and dissembling, his own name staring out at him: but the mescal had brought him in touch with his situation again to the extent that he did not now need to comprehend any meaning in the words beyond their abject confirmation of his own lostness, his own fruitless selfish ruin, now perhaps finally self-imposed, his brain, before this cruelly disregarded evidence of what heartbreak he had caused her, at an agonized standstill.

Why does Firmin drink? Because his wife has left him. But she has also left him because he drinks. This double bind leaves him no option but to forget: action becomes impossible. Yet he remains silent on this throughout the novel. There are moments, crucial, when Firmin delivers exquisitely clear monologues, ones that will begin the process of healing – Yvonne has already taken the first step by coming back to him – these monologues remain interior. Firmin forever finds that he has said nothing. The letters unanswered, the declarations unsaid, the silence eternal.

*

One day G said he was going to Melbourne to visit his son – or sons, neither of us seemed sure – and I never saw him again. A co-worker told me he had finally been banned – after I dunno how many people endured his leery gaze, his roaming hands and his infinite speech – and he simply disappeared.

The fate of alcoholics is easy to dramatise – destitute and adrift, they meet their end facedown, one bottle too many, abandoned behind pubs and next to liquor stores. Far more likely perhaps is the slow crawl of ill-health. Body parts begin to fail. One seeks the treatment, but the halls of the hospital and the clinic fill with the empty refrain of “prevention is the best treatment”. Such an ending rings true but is devoid of dramatic character. Hence Lowry and Donleavy confront a similar problem towards their novels’ end. Firmin ends up in an increasingly unlikely and confusing situation. He owes a pimp money, the police show up, but the police are corrupt. Eventually he is shot in the commotion, unable to act or escape due to his intoxication. In a book full of strange hallucinations, diced prose and erratic behaviour it is this last scene that seems so unreal, an unrealness broken only by the final line of the book. Likewise, in The Ginger Man, Dangerfield, who has spent some 300 pages running around Dublin drunk, fucking almost every woman he has met in almost every orifice they have, is on the brink of another relationship collapse, a nervous breakdown and the ever-present financial ruin when he runs into an old friend who is rolling in bags of money. As luck has it, Dangerfield is his old favourite from their drinking days. Dangerfield is lavished with cash and favours. A new suit and haircut paid for, a gift of brandy and bacon. Almost as if Donleavy knows this is half-arsing it, just before this scene Dangerfield nearly has his problems solved by a letter stating an inheritance he shall receive – but not until he is 47. This farcical moment only highlights the deus ex machina ending of The Ginger Man. Yet, in another way, there can be no other ending. These men, in the grips of a chemical dependency, are supposed to just put down the bottle, love their wives again and heal the festering wounds cultivated and forced open inside them? This would also be unlikely. They must first learn to speak again, and yet there are forces beyond them holding them back and locking them into their habits. Tragedy means no escape.

What, at last, is there to say about the style that unites The Ginger Man and Under the Volcano? What does it mean for the prose to be drunk? One of course can say the prose is drunk to reflect the intoxication of the main characters. Yet neither Dangerfield nor Firmin are the exclusive narrators of their tales. The Ginger Man shifts in between third-person and first-person perspective, melting together scene setting and interior thoughts. Under the Volcano has three perspectives it swaps between: Yvonne, Hugh and Firmin. Yet often the prose lapses into a neutral position. Never does it lose its sense of intoxication, so whose state of bliss is it reflecting? Perhaps it is the narrator themselves, recounting the tale of drunken louts, a cautionary tale from an alcoholic to a drinker. The conclusion is that the narrator is drunk, and if they are omniscient that perhaps it is God himself who is pissed.

Often, if I had finished a shift early, I would cross that invisible threshold over the bar and take my place amongst the regulars. We would stand tall and drink tequila or beer. Tell lewd jokes or, if the mood was right, argue about Hobbes or Hegel or, obscurely, Hedley Bull. And we would stand, as all good men do, in an awful silence, signalling our seriousness, our deep need to not speak about things as trivial as the weather or our lives. And I would add my voice to this silent chorus and I would drink, until at long last, I too had to leave, to struggle for the exit, and to wander from plaza to plaza, wearily and unsteadily, looking for a place to lay my head and to quell the thousands of clamouring complainers and deprecators that gnaw at me and sow my lips shut from within.

 

Duncan Stuart

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Duncan Stuart lives in Canberra. His writings have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Overland and Demos Journal. Find him on twitter @DuncanAStuart.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019.