Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On "John Barleycorn" by Jack London ***

I was thinking this was a novel but was happy to find out this was actually more a memoir of London's drinking rather than a veiled fictional account of it. I was also surprised to learn that this book is not as much a memoir as propaganda. That latter definition of it makes it interesting on a superficial level but far less interesting as literature. London's point seems first and foremost to secure the vote for women so that they can pass prohibition (something men would never do for themselves). London then goes into an account of his own drinking, how he became drawn to it for social compatibility reasons rather than a desire for drink in and of itself; he doesn't even care for drinking, he says.

But this is where it gets truly interesting. He binges as a kid, on beer. As a hard laborer, he has to drink to be one of the guys--or to get along with some of society's best most-caring men, the bartenders (the only ones who will lend a guy money in times of need), whose generosity then becomes an obligation on the part of the recipient to fraternize in the man's workplace. He learns the rules of drinking, how if one person treats, one must treat back, and so on, till one is stuck with twelve or fifteen drinks inside one's system.

Perhaps I'm a cretin, but I've never followed this rule; perhaps that also is why I feel awkward when others pay for a drink for me. I resent those who urge me to have another just to be with them. I generally only carry enough money on me for a drink or two and so can't get dragged into multiple rounds. I like drinking. But I don't like getting drunk. And I don't care to subscribe to the rules London feels obligated to follow.

The deeper London gets into drinking the more interesting the text becomes, in part because it becomes an increasingly self-justifying work, a work of an alcoholic who believes himself not to be one. Or is he being tongue in cheek? It's hard to tell at times. In one passage, he talks of how horribly easy it is to become attached to regular drinks even as a nonalcoholic like himself (imagine, he says, just how much more difficult such things are for an alcoholic). This would seem obviously a joke. But then he notes how he doesn't drink for three months at a time to justify how he isn't addicted or how he can still function as a writer, still churn out four pages a day, even when drinking. Meanwhile, he goes from having a drink after writing to having one in the middle of it to one at the beginning. He descends more and more into its grip. On that level, as the story of becoming an alcoholic, this is a fascinating and scary work, for even in all my above bravado about my limits of drinking, London makes any drinking seem like a slippery slope, and so it could be. Read it here at Project Gutenberg.

No comments: