Benders, Hangovers and Falling Apart: The Hard-Drinking Reading List

Benders, Hangovers and Falling Apart: The Hard-Drinking Reading List

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St. Patrick’s Day isn’t St. Patrick’s Day until you slip in a puddle of Guinness-black vomit. Heritage aside, St. Paddy’s is our national drinking holiday, where people start early, end late and pay the price the day after. Somewhere in there, there’s probably some terrifying karaoke, fried food and 10 bad decisions to have just one more. Don’t remember? No problem, because one of your jerk friends put it all on Facebook and tagged you in that photo where you’re shirtless, wasted, bleeding from the neck and walking across tables like Iggy Pop in his Berlin years. But no matter how bad (or good, depending on where you want to go in life) your St. Patrick’s Day gets, know that you are not alone. Drinking and its vicious aftermath have long been darling subjects of novelists. We’ve put together some of our favorite stories of excess to make you laugh, cry silently in a bus station bathroom, and read on the ride to rehab. And, yes, we intentionally omitted the novels of Bukowski, because enough already.

The Gold Standard
“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis
This list, like every other list of drinking novels, begins with “Lucky Jim.” And for good reason: It is the gold standard of both the glories and indignities of drinking– and the inevitable hangover. Nobody’s done it better than Kingsley Amis, whose perpetually unlucky James Dixon wakes up with a rager: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” (Amis himself was no stranger to the bottle. Check out “Everyday Drinking,” his ode to alcohol.)

The Prodigal Son
“Money” by Martin Amis
John Self, a crass English television commercial director, goes off the rails as soon as he lands in 1980s New York. His hotel room becomes a fetid nest of debauch, where instead of sleeping he blacks out, and where, it seems, there’s always the dregs of some mostly depleted bottle just within arm’s reach. Also? Self’s cure for the flu: half a bottle of Scotch, though a full bottle will also do the trick.

A Bender Before Dying
“Lights Out in Wonderland” by DBC Pierre
Gabriel Brockwell declares—in the very first line of the book—that he’s going to kill himself. Grinding it out in rehab, Gabriel’s got one last hurrah in mind before he turns out the lights: a globe-trotting bacchanal that takes him from Japan to the Germany of his childhood. The sheer, blinding insanity and near-lethal indulgence should give you something to strive for this weekend. (Trivia: DBC Pierre’s initials stand for “Dirty But Clean.”)

The Rake
“The Ginger Man” by J.P. Donleavy
A raffish ramblin’ man, Sebastian Dangerfield is a fish slightly out of water as an Irish-American stumbling his way through postwar Dublin. He’s got as many problems—professionally, financially, romantically—as Dublin has pubs, and though he never seems to have two nickels to rub together, Dangerfield’s almost constantly sauced. We should all be so lucky.

Crazy + Booze = Winner
“Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton
Another boozy British classic, Hamilton’s first novel wallows in the grubby corners of 1939 London, where alcoholic schizophrenic George Harvey Bone pursues an alcoholic out-of-work actress named Netta, who, naturally, has no use for George other than his money (and the liquor it can buy). Too bad for Netta that George begins plotting to kill her. But his schemes are some of the more tame goings-on among the unsavory cast. Yet the novel is not without its charms.

To the Death
“Leaving Las Vegas” by John O’Brien
Ever wanted to know what it’s like to drink yourself to death? Here you go. O’Brien’s brutal, semi-autobiographical masterpiece follows the downward spiral of Ben, whose alcoholism has cost him his family, friends, job, dignity and pretty much any shred of hope. So what’s a guy to do? Head to Vegas on a kamikaze bender, of course. Enter prostitute Sera, who just might set things back on the right track. Maybe. But probably not. This was later made into a movie; O’Brien killed himself just before production began.

Dive Life
“Damascus” by Joshua Mohr
The derelicts who frequent San Francisco dive bar Damascus move in and out of this ensemble novel; a short study of the dregs so closely observed you can almost smell the urinals that haven’t been cleaned since the Nixon administration. Among the no-hope crew: a man with no eyebrows, a guy who always wears a Santa outfit, a prostitute (of course), a cocky singer and an artist intent on staging a horrifying exhibit at the bar. What could go wrong?

Maybe There’s a Tiny Bit of Hope at the Bottom of this Bottle…. Nope!
“Northline” by Willy Vlautin
A self-destructive, blackout-drunk pregnant woman having visions of Paul Newman, no education and an abusive boyfriend? Yeah, that works. Vlautin, who has made his career poking around the seamier side of life, goes all in with the story of Allison Johnson’s attempts to pull her life out of the gutter in Vegas and start over in Reno. The only comfort here is Southern.

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