Books: Drunkspeare

  • Share
  • Read Later

THOSE DRINKING DAYS: MYSELF AND OTHER WRITERS by Donald Newlove; Horizon 176 pages; $9.95

For more than 25 years, Novelist Donald Newlove would not separate his need to write from his need to drink. He put himself in excellent company. Literary history is strewn with ego-alchemists who believed that they could turn alcohol and ink into art. But the marathon effort of a novel requires a clear head for architecture, and wine, as Dr. Johnson put it, "makes a man mistake words for thoughts."

Newlove, 52, filled a trunk with gorgeously marinated words, though he could not distill a publishable book, that passport to the literary world he saw only through the bottom of a glass. Instead, he sealed himself in the myth of the struggling, hard-drinking writer. He became a middle-aged character in Manhattan's East Village. His beard grew wild, as did his waistline. He dressed entirely in purple and must have resembled a hairy grape.

As the years passed, wives and girlfriends drifted off. Newlove supported himself with typing jobs on Wall Street and low-paid reviewing for a weekly called Idle Hours. He cleaved to his fiction bottle and dreams of success. "On my weekly payday, having written five reviews and collected thirty dollars," he writes, "I'd shine my rotting shoes, press my crotchstinking, shinyassed pants, trim the fray from shirt and jacket, knot up my best greasy tie, pour down a tall wine or two for ballast, then subway uptown to The Forum of the Twelve Caesars or The Four Seasons for one costly drink amid the greatest elegance available to me, burn for one brief moment! I hoped for a triumph of décor over loneliness."

Those Drinking Days is a passionate blend: part autobiography, part confessional, part sketches of famous alcoholic writers and part sermon on the dangers of "Drunkspeare ... its bird song and purling ravishment, bliss of self-love."

And perhaps self-hate. After achieving degradations close to madness, Newlove stopped drinking. In 1970 he published The Painter Gabriel, a novel whose subject, fresh language and touching exuberance reminded some critics of Joyce Gary's The Horse's Mouth. Generous praise greeted his second novel, Leo & Theodore, a picaresque about the bawdy adventures of Siamese twins growing up near Lake Erie, the author's home turf. This book and its sequel, The Drunks, were revised and republished as Sweet Adversity.

The title does not apply to Those Drinking Days. Newlove takes a hard, unsentimental line with himself and writers better known than he. There are the fall-down drunks, like Malcolm Lowry, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas. Heavy drinkers of the Hemingway and James Joyce class are made to seem especially self-deluding about their problem because they usually tanked up after working hours.

In general, Newlove's treatment of the thirsty talent in the room is too haphazard to sustain any conclusions about writers and alcohol that would not apply to computer programmers. But like improvisational jazz, the book works because of its looseness. The Newlove sound is robust and swinging, the mark of a man who has discovered that his talent is in toxication enough.