Kenneth Cook’s short novel Wake in Fright (1961) is, according to its publisher, the “original and greatest outback horror story.” J.M. Coetzee acknowledges it as a “a true dark classic of Australian literature.” So, naturally, I was interested and sought it out.
I found it horrifying and suspenseful, but also humorous at times. For the book’s entirety, the protagonist, a young schoolteacher, finds himself stranded in a tiny outpost town of New South Wales, near what Cook ominously calls “the Dead Heart,” that is, the uninhabited interior of Australia. On his way home to Sydney, he spends a night in a mining town called Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba,” as the locals call it; apparently modeled on Broken Hill, where Cook had jobs as a journalist in his twenties). The schoolteacher goes on a little spree that depletes his savings, leaving him broke, without any way to get home or anywhere to stay for the six long weeks ahead of the Christmas break. Thus, he finds himself dependent on the hospitality of the locals of The Yabba, who ply him with beer after beer, and take him on a ultra-violent nocturnal kangaroo hunting trip. (Dare I tell you that a film adaptation, directed by Ted Kotcheff, can be viewed on YouTube?)
So this book takes the form of an alcoholic nightmare, and it set me thinking of the other classic books in this vein. On Twitter I asked what other books people would consider classic novels/novellas of alcoholism, in addition to two that sprang readily to my mind: Appointment in Samarra and Under the Volcano.
This list stakes no claim to exhaustivity, especially as it includes only a few works written in languages other than English, but I would be glad to include any suggestions readers might have. You can leave those in the comments, or on Twitter.
L’assommoir (1877) – Emile Zola – via @AmateurReader
The Sun Also Rises (1926) – Ernest Hemingway – – via @olivia8k
Tender is the Night (1934) – F. Scott Fitzgerald – via @olivia8k
‘A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle’ (poem) (1926) – Hugh MacDiarmid – via @issekinicho
Appointment in Samarra (1934) – John O’Hara
The Thin Man (1934) – Dashiell Hammett – via @levistahl
Good Morning, Midnight (1939) – Jean Rhys
The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939) – Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann)
The Lost Weekend (1944) – Charles Jackson – via @noctambulate
The Iceman Cometh (play) (1946) – Eugene O’Neill
Nightmare Alley (1946) – William Lindsay Gresham
Under the Volcano (1947) – Malcom Lowry
The Drinker (1950) – Hans Fallada – via @
The Ginger Man (1955) – J.P. Donleavy
Wake in Fright (1961) – Kenneth Cook
A Fan’s Notes (1968) – Frederick Exley – via @olivia8k
Post Office (1971) – Charles Bukowski – via @olivia8k
Moscow to the End of the Line (1973) – Venedikt Erofeev – via @theuntranslated
Disturbing the Peace (1975) – Richard Yates – via @
Ironweed (1983) – William Kennedy – via @noctambulate
Pushkin Hills (1983) – Sergei Dovlatov – via @issekinicho
Jernigan (1991) – David Gates
Fitzgerald’s problematic relationship with alcohol is amply evident in this memorably brilliant, incisive passage:
Often people display a curious respect for a man drunk, rather like the respect of simple races for the insane. Respect rather than fear. There is something awe-inspiring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything. Of course we make him pay afterward for his moment of superiority.