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The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

The Lost Weekend, a 1944 novel by Charles Jackson, is a powerfully rendered and therefore sickening account of a binge conducted by 33-year-old Don Birnham, a sometimes writer who is plagued by alcoholism's ghastly and degrading effects.


Birnham is portrayed as a romantic and literate child with a vivid imagination whose father left his family as a boy and who was humiliated by a homosexual crush on a college classmate as a young man.  Afterward he also suffered from tuberculosis, but the focus of the novel is on booze and Birnham's unstinting efforts to obtain it, eluding the good intentions of his younger brother Wick and his female friend Helen.


The setting is New York City.  We're in the 30s.  One of those claustrophobic apartments  with small closets, a small kitchen, bedrooms just for sleeping, and a living room with a record player and some books.  For much of the novel, that's where we stay, although there is a fantastic scene entailing Don racing up 2nd Avenue where he hopes to find a pawn shop to hock his typewriter (not on Yom Kippur, however) and another fine scene in the alcoholics ward of a public hospital and finally a great hallucinatory sequence that ends up in a bloody struggle between a nonexistent bat and a nonexistent mouse.


For anyone who has ever had too much to drink, or who has had a friend or relative who is an alcoholic, this is a novel that's almost too vivid to take. In fact, I'd venture that a lot of people today would put it down.  The literary problem has to do with both sympathy for the protagonist, which is hard to muster, and current understanding of alcoholism.


Don Birnham could be an appealing figure. He's educated, well-traveled, and clever, but here's the rub: an alcoholic is not really a person.  The mind of an alcoholic may function, but it's not in control. The addiction--like most addictions--runs the show and becomes a kind of body-mind, almost moving without the individual's say-so.  I'll go further: the body-mind does in fact move without the mind-mind's say-so.  


Once in spell of recovery F. Scott Fitzgerald (a hero to Birnham for good literary reasons) asked someone if he had just picked up and swallowed a glass of gin.  He was told he had.  He didn't know he was going to do it and he didn't know he did it.  That's alcoholism.  At a certain level of chronic alcohol abuse, an individual like Don will steal, pawn, beg, lie, betray, hide...do anything to make sure the booze remains available.


And then he will drink.  The quantities Don consumes during this weekend are astonishing, but not incredible. An alcoholic can and will down quarts of whatever in a day. Quarts!  He will, as Don does, knock back six drinks in an hour.  He will, as Don does, empty every empty bottle one last time for one last drop, although he doesn't employ the trick many alcoholics know well: you hold an empty bottle under running hot water; this produces an extra drop or two.


Don can remember love for his mother, his home town, works of literature, music and film.  He's gifted in these memories. I doubt, however, that the regnant consciousness being portrayed--other than the venal cunning--is actually Don's.  It's Charles Jackson's in full and painful recollection not only of his bad times as an alcoholic but of his good times.


Two of my friends in adolescence were alcoholics by their early twenties. I saw one drink a full bottle of vodka in twenty minutes.  We sent him off in an ambulance. Another visited me in Baltimore and we headed out for a bookstore. He asked if we could stop in a bar.  It was 11 a.m.  I said okay.  He had a beer.  Halfway into his beer he told me that he had been desperate for that beer since 8, when he woke up, and his life was nothing but the next drink.  He was 22.  Recently, he said, he apparently had flipped his prized Toyota Celica and awakened in a garage where it had been towed. No memory of any of this.  Another beer. He was calm enough for the bookstore now.  He liked most of the books I liked.  Then we went back to a bar. I still didn't want anything to drink.    


The stratagems and rationalizations of the alcoholic are only superficially what the alcoholic is about. The core issue is the horrific impersonality of the overwhelming addiction. Some people evidently are more vulnerable to this than others; sometimes a trauma earlier in life is the trigger; sometimes the difficulty would appear to be genetic.


In years past, alcoholism and drug addiction have been associated with creative personalities. There has been talk of "fire in the brain," or so much pain in the heart that the artist must douse it with one kind of sedative or another. We can list Fitzgerald,, Faulkner, Poe, Coleridge and countless others as examples of this school of thought.  The long-lived, long-productive counter--examples get left out.  Henry James wasn't an excessive drinker, nor was Tolstoy.  We know nothing about Shakespeare as a person, but I would wager that he drank early in life and gave it up. No one could write King Lear or The Tempest in his cups.


As I read The Long Weekend, I thought that the story of an alcoholic was being fabulously well-told from within Don Birnbaum's humiliations but no story  about an alcoholic should be about the alcoholic himself; it should be about the people stuck with or trying to help the alcoholic.  We get some of this in the form of Don's frazzled brother and stoic lady friend. We do not get, however, to the cruelest moment in personal entanglement with an alcoholic,the moment when you tell him or her it's over: another drink and I'm done with you, another drink and I have no hope for you; another drink and you're dead to me because I'm moving on.


The actual crises of the chronic alcoholic of the binge or constant variety  are true sufferings, but the deepest cut and moral challenge befalls the outsider in taking the ultimate moral step of saving the lost soul by banishing it...ceasing to enable it...shutting down all sympathy and love because that's what the alcoholic needs and that's what the enabling outsider needs for either of them to survive beyond alcohol's grip.


The Lost Weekend had a strong impact and Jackson went on to write a few more books of varying success before his addiction and TB combined to break up his late-life marriage and erratically reborn career.  The book remains relevant even if it is medically somewhat off-the-mark, focusing more on the personality than the physiology. That said, we are living in an era of binge drinking at college that is no different from what Jackson describes,  and this binge drinking goes on into the twenties and thirties and sometimes beyond.  I always wince when I see a particular ad for alcohol that ends with the sweet warning, "Drink responsibly!"  At best this is just alcohol venders trying to make sure they don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg.   At worst it's hypocritical advice from friends who are no one's friends but their own. 


For more of my comments on contemporary literature and issues, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).