Drinking as a (Hard-Boiled) State of Mind

by Michael Potemra

I just got back from a week and a half in Los Angeles, specifically at the glorious Santa Monica beach. I devoted much of my time there to contemplating the ocean, and to rereading the works of Raymond Chandler — one of my favorite writers and, as it happens, a local resident, much of whose work was set in the City of Angels and its surroundings. I came across the following, in chapter 15 of The High Window (1942):

He picked the glass up and tasted it and sighed again and shook his head sideways with a half smile; the way a man does when you give him a drink and he needs it very badly and it is just right and the first swallow is like a peek into a cleaner, sunnier, brighter world.

Raymond Chandler had a serious drinking problem, so note the realism of his description of the nature of the promise booze makes. He’s not saying that drinking makes the world a cheery place; he knows better. No, it is that “first swallow” that offers a prospect of — a mere “peek into” — a “cleaner, sunnier, brighter world”; and it’s that prospect that keeps the problem drinker coming back, in quest of his sometimes-embraced but always, finally, elusive quarry.

One of Chandler’s most renowned successors, Ian Fleming, offered a similar insight. In his last James Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (published posthumously in 1965), he wrote: “The best drink in the day is just before the first one.” The joys of drinking — and, more specifically, of heavy drinking — are more in the anticipation than in the actual consummation. When I was a boy, I read all the James Bond novels, including this one, and promptly forgot about them once puberty set in. In college-fraternity and early post-college days, I noticed this phenomenon of the optimism involved in drinking, the looking forward to the very first drink as the beginning of an adventure into the sunlit uplands, and thought the observation was original with me; a couple of years ago I reread Fleming’s books and discovered that that was where I had first heard this truth expressed.

In Chandler, one can glimpse a lot of realities of this kind, romantically transformed in the expression. I strongly recommend his works, even for those who are not generally fans of the private-eye genre. I myself, I must finally admit, am basically not; I have tried to read other highly regarded hardboiled-detective writers and have not found any I enjoy as much as Chandler. I do like James Ellroy, sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of his mannerisms; and Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man (1971) is excellent. As for Ian Fleming, he was capable of putting forth breathtakingly exciting prose, and boringly juvenile twaddle, all within the very same book. He was an immense talent who could have used a better editor; or, to put it another way, he has a lot to offer readers who have the patience to get past his less-successful pages. (The prominent novelist Anthony Burgess, best known as the author of A Clockwork Orange, named Fleming’s Goldfinger one of the 99 best novels of the post-war era. It’s probably the best James Bond book to start with.)  

PS. I managed to get together, in Santa Monica, with some fascinating Angeleno NR readers, Marina and Steve from Santa Monica, and Professor Matthew (originally of Thomas Aquinas College); I thank them, again, for some wonderful conversation in a such a beautiful part of America’s most beautiful state!

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