rev. of The Morning After by Jack B. Weiner

Issue #5
Spring 1974

In the last century, Tolstoy put forth some thoughts on addiction in his essay, "Why Do Men Stupify Themselves?" His thesis is that we drink, take dope of one kind or another, even use tobacco, primarily for the ignoble ends of releasing us from the sanctions and general hamstringing of our consciences. People resort to such substances, he says, "either to escape feeling ashamed after having done something contrary to their consciences or to bring themselves beforehand into a state in which they can commit actions contrary to conscience, but to which their animal nature prompts them." Upon this unfortunate notion several novels about drunkeness have been predicated that or the equally simplistic idea that a prodigious drinker uses sauce as a mere anesthetic which permits him to escape, at least for a time, a hostile or otherwise intolerable reality. Echoes of both problematic lines of thought are found in Charles Jackson's 1944 novel still regarded as a classic on alcoholism
The Lost Weekend.

I've always thought it curious that few of our major writers who have either boozed inordinately or were legitimate alcoholics London, Lewis, Hemingway, Faulkner, Lardner, Fitzgerald come off the top of one's mind without thinking have, while using alcohol in their works as a carpenter uses nails, so seldom ever tried to let us know exactly what it feels like to look at the world from the eyes of a drunk; after all, it is not entirely a canard that booze is to the writer what black lung is to the coal miner. But apart from
The Lost Weekend and the towering though difficult
Under the Volcano by the English Malcolm Lowry, the booze novel would seem to me a kind of fecund bog that's been too little mined; Jackson's book may seem a trifle too facile, a little too easy to convert into the grotesque piece of mawkishness the film starring Ray Milland became, and Lowry's novel, by dint of its metaphysical concerns and clutter of mythic allusions and rich, dense prose, makes tough reading and seldom achieves
The Lost Weekend's admirable readability it is my own belief that
Under the Volcano really requires, in order that it yield up most of its meanings, that the reader have been nearly as strung-out on liquor as Lowry's Consul in the book, Geoffrey Firmin. But in any case, the whole Lowrian approach to booze is vastly different from Jackson's. Lowry's Geoffrey Firmin can't give up the sauce and is willing, indeed
anxious, to endure its torments for its moments of insight and/or exhilaration (Martin Trumbaugh, the transparent persona for Lowry in
Through the Panama who wryly suggests the real cause of alcoholism is "ugliness and the complete baffling sterility of existence as it is
sold to you," offers his sardonic cure for the affliction: gin and orange juice). For Lowry, alcoholism is a condition to be endured, like diabetes. The important thing, though, is that the impulse behind the Consul's dipsomania is essentially affirmative. Another of Lowry's personas (in
Dark is the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid) was fascinated by this passage from William James'
The Varieties of Religious Experience:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hours. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man! It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radian core. It makes him for the moment one with the truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it.

At any rate, several months ago a new alcohol-centered book by Jack Weiner appeared.
The Morning After, a first-person novel from the point of view of a 37 year old alcoholic California PR man, written by a now 44 year old California PR writer, is the first book on the theme of booze I've read in some time that departs markedly from either of the two wellsprings of alcoholism I have described, though it has some implications in both.

Through the eyes of Charlie Lester, Speechwriter and so forth for the clever but stupid head of a Standard Oil-like octopus, we come upon much that we might have predicted: Charlie is loaded with paranoia (frequently with reason), hostile within while finding it necessary to grin and play it straight on the outside, an amoral womanizer who sees people as good or bad including his loving wife Fran and his two healthy, all-American kids in relation to how they either impede or facilitate his goal of drinking himself to death. His PR and speech-writing efforts interestingly at one point he toys with retiring to a Bohemian life in Laguna, where he'll write the book he's always felt is inside him are tasks he can do efficiently, but after a certain glorying in his competence has faded, they are merely more obstacles on the path to the bottle.

The business of drinking itself in
The Morning After is also fairly predictable, save for its utter cheerlessness, a dreary business carried on among cretinous drunks in ugly California gin mills, eating places, and apartments the apartment episodes always involve a sleazy sort of sex. There is much drunken driving in the small hours, and the freeways are as bleak as any California landscape envisioned by Joan Didion; there are the chance aquaintances among the barflies, the mindless promiscuity with people Charlie doesn't even
like, the tearful reconciliations with family and job, the blackouts, the torturous awakenings as Charlie ponders what he may have done the night before, the ugly realizations as shards of memory return, even, later, the DT's: life is for Charlie Lester, we come to understand, a series of gaping lacunae which he must fill with his own substance which means getting on with his gradated suicide (for Lowry, boozing can be as joyous and fulfilling as one of Mellors' couplings with Connie Chatterly). For the compulsion to drink in
The Morning After springs neither from an attempt to hide from life or conscience Charlie's "conscience" has been stunted, through no fault of his own, by a bleak and terrifying childhood nor, a la Lowry, from an attempt to transcend one's existence.

Writing of Cesare Pavese in his excellent
The Savage God, A. Alvarez relates that Pavese killed himself in 1950 at the height of his powers ("Today I see clearly that from 1928 until now I have always lived under this shadow," read his suicide note) and interprets the origins of his suicide in a passage that might have been written with Charlie Lester in mind. A suicide of Pavese's type, Alvarez tells us,

is born, not made. . .he receives his reasons from whatever nexus of guilt, loss and despair when he is too young to cope with them or understand. All he can do is accept them innocently and try to defend himself as best he can. By the time he recognizes them more objectively, they have become part of his sensibility, his way of seeing and his way of life. Unlike the psychotic self-injurer, whose suicide is a sudden fatal twist in the road, his whole life is a gradual downward curve, steepening at the end, on which he moves knowingly, unable and unwilling to stop himself. No amount of success will change him.

It is thus much more than the rhetoric of self-pity though it is that too when Charlie, believing a hallucinatory version of Fran is asking him if he wants to die, thinks: "Yes . . . Yes. I want that." or regard the collegiate Charlie decrying his failure to remain outside during a tornado. "To dare it,
dare it to suck me into its deadly vortex." Or when, stone-sober, Charlie visualizes "a small headstone as if for a child. Weathered and old, a New England churchyard. My name barely legible.
Charles Lester. B. 1932 D. 1970 R.I.P." Or consider the scene when Fran looks at him and Charlie imagines himself "in a cage. Naked and wallowing in my own filth. Fran was on the outside, a spectator along with the rest of the world. Horrified yet fascinated, repelled yet transfixed."

In short, Charlie is possessed of a demonic and all-consuming self-hatred, and he is bent on destroying what he hates; he cannot even say, like Mailer's Croft, "I HATE EVERYTHING WHICH IS NOT IN MYSELF." Self-insight, so the theory goes, can be a key for some alcoholics, but for Charlie it can only increase his torment I've certainly no reason to think the self-analysis Charlie works out on his own while his expensive, unspeakable dandy of a shrink lolls in his chair, isn't valid. But of what good is understanding to the man who is haunted still by a memory from the second or third grade: "I crayoned a drawing one day. . .a weird looking tree, gnarled and leafless and with twisted branches and bulging roots. The roots were above the ground, reaching every which way . . . I called it `Loneliness' and wrote the word in big block letters above my name."

The Morning After is not especially well-written in several respects; Charlie's fragments of thoughts and the gratuitous imprecations he is always
thinking at someone or some thing grate on one's nerve ends, and as Richard Yates pointed out in his review in
The New York Times, the book's prose "often falls into shoddy tough-talk, and there are some dreadful images"; but in spite of such cavils, the book teems handsomely with what Scott Fitzgerald once called the one incommunicable quality: vitality. We somehow know this book is the real thing the way we knew it was the real thing when we read the best of London, Crane, Norris, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the early James Jones and Norman Mailer. We are not getting life as filigreed doilies viewed through some elitist prism, as is the case with certain productions of the Barth-Barthelme-Gass axis (many of their efforts always remind me of that frightful butterfly in Hawthorne's "Artist of the Beautiful"), nor perhaps even a mirror held up to life, but life itself, it seems, crude, ugly, brawling, farting, puking, haranguing, even, from time to time, comatose. And fortunately Weiner is never didactic about his vision, save by indirection: if
you're like Charlie Lester and you keep on trucking in that fashion, you'll likely end up dead is the message this approach yields.

Alcohol as an agent is particularly appropriate for this novel: all the compulsive sucking at drinks and the compulsive showering and whining and weeping let us know that Charlie's
infantile memories are what prey on him, not the torments of, say, adolescence or young manhood. A great many of his adult activities and proclivities smack of the infantile, and one of the most important memories it is recurrent, and closes the book took place at two.

Two years old in a wet diaper. Benny changing me, bending down and uncovering me. A thin stream jetting upward from my tiny penis, catching him full in the face.

Benny. Shouting with fury, jowls aquiver, lips white and dripping. Little Charlie lying there naked, frightened to death. I had looked up at him with wide tear-filled eyes. Sobbing out the mixed up word.

"Me a
good boy, Aunty Benny!"

In any case, there are two Charlies, one the grizzled but still attractive sot in his late thirties, the other the small nubbin of the boy who, helpless as an exposed snail, does in reality what the mature Charlie is forever doing symbolically: in effect, he pisses on the world. And himself. There is not enough to make too strong a causal link between past and present Weiner doesn't give us enough on the young boy to make this work in any clinical sense but I suspect the reader will not be troubled by this except in a very retrospective fashion, for he will likely be swallowed up by the driving force of the narrative.

How a critic like Edmund Fuller, who once wrote in
The Saturday Review, "What I really object to is the writer who offers me the world's horrors without offering a solution," must hate a book like this! Well, Jack Weiner has given us no real answers, but he has given us the next best thing, a superlatively couched question. And perhaps nor since Jackson and Lowry have we had a book which lets us with such immediacy know what it feels like to think like an alcoholic, feel like one, even, if our suspension of disbelief grows sufficiently strong, to
be one for the time we are immersed in the book he has performed a very signal service in this sense, and that alone is worth the price of admission. This is not a pleasant book to read, though, and we know from the beginning that after the "wine and women, mirth/and laughter," there will be for Charlie Lester, when his luck runs out, no "sermons and soda water the day after."

But, hell, let's not get
too solemn after all,
I know all Charlie Lester need have done to have saved himself: his hope and salvation lay in doing what Jack Weiner has done, in writing the bock about it all (if this novel isn't heavily autobiographical, I'll eat it). Writing the book couldn't have saved Charles Jackson's Don Birnam he was a weak fish in any case and it couldn't have saved Geoffrey Firmin for him booze and art make a tasty dish nor did it save the
Volcano's creator from washing down 20 Amytal pills with a quart of gin (coroner's verdict: death by "misadventure") in 1957. But Charlie Lester was salvageable; maybe it's a little pretentious, but as Nietzsche put it, "We have art in order to not die of the truth." That, I think, applies to both audience and artist.