David Bowie’s deep ironic voice slipped about my bedroom and murmured in my ear, “We want you, Big Brother.” And I wanted him. What better way to slide next to my beloved Bowie than to read the book that inspired him?
So at about 15 years old, I read 1984 by George Orwell and mostly missed the point.
Putting aside the totalitarianism and the love story (yeah, yeah, totalitarianism bad, love good), the thing that stuck with me was the gin—Victory Gin. Here is how Orwell introduces it: “It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine. Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of this eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.”
Rubber club to the back of the head? Give me some of that. Anything that could morph my world into something more cheerful sounded worth the pain of swallowing. I remember the book being much more gin-soaked than it is. Winston Smith does not start out as an alcoholic. Eventually, after a resurrecting and heartbreaking illicit interlude, gin, which grew more horrible with every sip, became “…the element he swam in. It was his life, his death, and his resurrection.”
The magic was in the bottle. As I sat in humdrum classes and walked the peaceful streets of Clinton, New York, I dreamed of transforming my conventional life. I believed that alcohol, combined with a drastic change of scenery, would perform that trick. By the time I got to those books I was already proto-alcoholic. I had sipped the dregs of my mother’s daily cocktail of scotch and water, sampled beer during furtive gatherings in the chill of upstate winter nights, and plundered my parents’ liquor cabinet for ancient, rarely-touched bottles of sweet after-dinner liqueurs. I fixated on the booze and tapped my foot through high school, marking time until I could drink as much as I wanted.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises introduced me to drinking wine out of a goatskin bag. I completely missed Hemingway’s not-so-subtle reference to the war injury that left Jake castrated. I was mystified by Jake’s frustrating and unconsummated relationship with Brett. But, if they were too dumb to see themselves as a couple, what could I do about it? I missed that their drinking showed the emotional devastation of the generation of World War One soldiers and survivors. These people weren’t getting on with their lives; they idled and floated through a river of booze and distractions. In the aftermath of a muddy, bloody, brutal war, a peaceful world made no sense. Why try to navigate life’s absurdities when you can watch strapping youths fighting bulls or go fishing for fat trout in cold mountain streams or drink until dawn?
Again I missed the point. Instead, I imagined the time when wine would be sprayed out of a goatskin and into my willing mouth. I wanted to kneel on the ground and have my lover stand above me, holding the skin about crotch-high, and shoot a warm load of red wine past my teeth and down my throat.
The me who so misread those books tried to be sophisticated, older, literate. I wanted to place myself among world travelers. I longed to feel something, to break away from the mundane and predictable. I lived in a small village and attended a central school where the daughters and sons of college professors mixed with kids who completed early morning chores on their parents’ dairy farms to hop on a school bus. I was a girl who hated wearing dresses, hated the idea of weakness, hated time spent submitting to feminine norms. I wanted to be on battlefields of Middle-earth, or investigating castles in Transylvania, or surviving on the hard streets of Tulsa with Ponyboy Curtis, or assisting Dr. Frankenstein in his electrified laboratory, reanimating lifeless tissue.
When I look at the young me, sitting on her bed, infatuated with Bowie, 1984 on her bedside table, I wonder why I connected so strongly with the lure of drinking. As I dreamed of tramping through Europe or running from authorities or wherever my romantic imagination took me, it was inconceivable that alcohol might stop me. Alcohol was the diving off point, the catalyst. Not the smothering, soaking blanket it became. I expected alcohol to take me away. Instead I dragged booze along until the hangovers, the dangerous dozing on late night subway cars, the stumbling drunkenness, the adulterous affairs, the gut emptying episodes, and the lure of drug and alcohol soaked relationships became too heavy to bear.
As I read these books now, 35 years and an encyclopedia’s worth of experiences later, I think I get them. Totalitarianism bad. Love doomed. Castration frustrating. War psychically devastating. And alcohol potentially life draining, at least in the hands of Winston, Jake and me.