Like the others, the question was rhetorical, abstract, anything but pragmatic; as vain to ask as his own clever question had been vain. It was far too late to pose such a problem with any reasonable hope for an answer–or, an answer forthcoming, any reasonable hope that it would be worth listening to or prove anything at all. It had long since ceased to matter Why. You were a drunk; that’s all there was to it. You drank; period. And once you took a drink, once you got under way, what difference did it make Why? There were so many dozen reasons that didn’t count at all; none that did. Maybe you drank because you were unhappy, or too happy, or too hot, or too cold; or you didn’t like the Partisan Review, or you loved The Partisan Review. It was as groundless as that. To hell with causes–absent father, fraternity shock, too much mother, too much money, or the dozen other reasons you fell back on to justify yourself. They counted for nothing in the face of the one fact: you drank and it was killing you. Why? Because alcohol was something you couldn’t handle, it had you licked. Why? Because you had reached the point where one drink was too many and a hundred not enough.
I’m starting my review of Charles Jackson’s wonderful novel The Lost Weekend with a long quote, something you shouldn’t really do in a review, because I know most people who read reviews only read the first part. I think this is some fine writing, something I found all over the place in The Lost Weekend.
You may know the excellent 1945 movie starring Ray Milland, but Mr. Jackson’s novel has not seen a wide readership since his subsequent novels failed to sell as well as The Lost Weekend did.
The Lost Weekend details a few days in the life on a serious alcoholic named Don Birnam. Don’s family has some money, enough that he can live off of his younger brother who is trying to help him. Don is a binge drinker. He is able to convince his brother to leave him at home for the weekend which makes it possible for him to go on a bender in a big way. Really big.
Don spends the entire weekend drinking or trying to find money so he can drink more. He is at the point where there is little he won’t do to get another drink. He steals money from the maid, from several local businesses. He even tries to steal a woman’s handbag while out drinking at a nearby bar. There’s a wonderful scene where he takes his portable typewriter to a pawn shop only to find all the pawn shops in New York City are closed for Yom Kippur. He walks all the way to 125th street, lugging the typewriter, lost in a drunken reverie, finally arriving without even knowing what he has done.
The writing in this sections is amazing, but too much for me to quote. I’d rank it alongside the trunk road section of Kipling’s Kim as one of the best travel scenes ever written.
I was struck by how gay, nearly gay-friendly, The Lost Weekend was. Written in 1946, it’s contains several very early glimpses at gay life. Don tells how he was kicked out of his college fraternity after less than a year because he had developed a crush on an older boy which he was unable to hide. He mentions an ex-girl-friend who complained that he only slept with her when he was drunk. This puts the main character well within the gay spectrum like Brick in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
There is a long scene with a male nurse called Bim after Don wakes up to find himself in the hospital with a near severe head injury he cannot recall getting. Bim tells Don that he will see him again sometime which Don thinks means Bim suspects he is homosexual but the reader can also read as seeing Don as the full-bore drunk he has become. Bim is clearly gay, in any case.
In a later scene, Don goes into a subway restroom to count the money he has found in his coat pocket only to find two strange men wearing overcoats standing quietly near the stalls, watching him. He suspects they are some sort of policeman but many readers would recognize this as a cruising scene.
From the intense and believable drunk scenes, I knew Mr. Jackson had to be writing from experience. I try to avoid the biographical fallacy as much as possible, but there was no way he knew this experience in this much detail without having lived it. Wikipedia backs me up here. It also states that something very similar happened to Mr. Jackson in his fraternity days. He was married throughout his adult life but Wikipedia does not say whether or not he was gay. There is a recent biography about him that looks very interesting…
Charles Jackson’s second novel The Fall of Valor is about a married man who falls in love with another man. It did not get the critical raves The Lost Weekend did nor did it sell as well. It has since fallen out of print.
But, there is a copy at the San Francisco Public Library…….