As a na­tion, we’ve been sloshed from the very start

Book re­view by Christo­pher Buckley

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Is Christo­pher Buckley’s new novel, “The Relic Master,” will be pub­lished in De­cem­ber.

Su­san Cheever be­gins her sober look at Amer­i­can drink­ing with a nifty de­tail: “The Pil­grims landed the Mayflower at Cape Cod, Mas­sachusetts, on a cold Novem­ber day in 1620 be­cause they were run­ning out of beer.” But then in the next chap­ter we find: “The Mayflower’s first foray onto the shore of Cape Cod was made so that the ship’s women could fi­nally do the laun­dry.”

The first ver­sion makes a bet­ter case for her the­sis, namely that we’re a na­tion of sots. Whether our bibu­lous his­tory is, per her sub­ti­tle, a “se­cret” seems ques­tion­able. Her im­pres­sive eight-page bib­li­og­ra­phy would seem to at­test that our — hic — in­take of spir­its has not en­tirely gone un­no­ticed by our his­to­ri­ans.

Cheever is the well-re­garded author of nu­mer­ous books, in­clud­ing four me­moirs, sev­eral bi­ogra­phies (E.E. Cum­mings and Bill Wil­son, the founder of Al­co­holics Anony­mous) and five nov­els. She is a pro­fessed re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic, thus the sub­ject mat­ter is rich ter­rain. Her fa­ther, the author John Cheever, also was an al­co­holic.

As a na­tion, she says, our drink­ing has been sub­ject to pen­du­lum swings. From the 1620s, when we either ran out of beer or clean shirts, we in­creas­ingly drank like fish un­til the 1820s. The way she tells it, it’s a mir­a­cle we man­aged to win our in­de­pen­dence, be­cause we could barely stand up straight. “By the time of the

Rev­o­lu­tion, the colonists’ drink­ing habits had es­ca­lated un­til each colonist was drink­ing al­most twice as much as the av­er­age per­son drinks to­day.”

The mili­tia at Lex­ing­ton was cross-eyed drunk. Ethan Allen be­gan his day with a rum-and-hard-cider eye-opener. Other pop­u­lar quaffs of the day had names such as “Rat­tle-skull and Bombo, Cherry Bounce and Whistle­belly Vengeance.” Next time I’m in a snotty ho­tel bar, I’m go­ing to ask the bar­tender for one of those. And make it a dou­ble.

We got thirstier and thirstier un­til about the 1820s, at which point, Cheever says, we be­gan to taper off. (News of this must not have reached the Wild West.) Then, a cen­tury later, we went wacko over­board in the other di­rec­tion, ban­ning booze al­to­gether. Af­ter the Vol­stead Act was re­pealed, happy hour re­turned. (Thank God.) Again, the pen­du­lum swung. We be­came hap­pier and hap­pier, un­til we ar­rived at the Era of Don Draper and John Cheever.

Su­san Cheever is on her most solid ground in the sec­tions of the book that have to do with artis­tic drink­ing. She in­cludes a heart-lac­er­at­ing quote by her fa­ther: “If you are an artist, self-de­struc­tion is quite ex­pected of you. The thrill of star­ing into the abyss is ex­cit­ing un­til it be­comes, as it did in my case, con­temptible.”

She notes that “all five of our twen­ti­eth-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture No­bel lau­re­ates were al­co­holic — Sin­clair Lewis, Eu­gene O’Neill, Wil­liam Faulkner, Ernest Hem­ing­way, and John Stein­beck.” (A proud tally.) And those are the ones who made it to the top. Lots of other great writ­ers who didn’t re­ceive the No­bel lau­rel were just as pie-eyed. To­day, the pen­du­lum seems to have swung again. Cheever says that most of our lead­ing lit­er­ary fig­ures are fairly ab­stemious. Whether this will make for more in­ter­est­ing bi­ogra­phies re­mains to be seen.

There’s a bit of pad­ding in the book, of ma­te­rial that is ex­tra­ne­ous to the sub­ject mat­ter. We get, for in­stance, a re­ca­pit­u­la­tion of the Mayflower voy­age; of the Civil War bat­tle at Shiloh (be­cause of Ulysses S. Grant’s his­tory of drink­ing); of Wy­att Earp (a tee­to­taler); and of Ge­orge Arm­strong Custer (a “dry drunk”).

This quib­ble aside, I was fas­ci­nated (and de­pressed) to learn that Abra­ham Lin­coln’s body­guard left his post at Ford’s Theater to go booz­ing at a nearby bar. That was de­ter­mi­na­tive. Per­haps as sadly con­se­quen­tial was the el­bow-bend­ing by a num­ber of John F. Kennedy’s Se­cret Ser­vice de­tail dur­ing the wee hours of Nov. 22, 1963. Han­govers do not im­prove re­ac­tion time. The driver of the pres­i­den­tial limou­sine fa­tally ap­plied the brakes af­ter the first shot, pro­vid­ing Lee Harvey Oswald a bet­ter tar­get for his next. Worst of all, none of the agents no­ticed what many by­standers had: a ri­fle pro­trud­ing from the sixth floor of a book de­pos­i­tory. This sec­tion makes for wrench­ing read­ing, even if the ma­te­rial is not new, much less part of a “se­cret his­tory.”

Also en­ter­tain­ing in a grim way is Cheever’s ac­count of Richard Nixon’s tip­pling. Nixon didn’t need much to get blotto. One drink would usu­ally do it. He ap­par­ently also socked his wife, Pat, on oc­ca­sion, leav­ing her with a black eye. His aide John Ehrlich­man told him in 1962 that he re­fused to work “for a drunk.” Nixon promised to be good. He wasn’t, al­though Water­gate is not blamed on his drink­ing.

Poor Henry Kissinger seems to have spent much of his time coun­ter­mand­ing cuckoo bomb­ing or­ders from a half-in-the-bag Tricky Dick. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Sch­lesinger fi­nally “had to in­struct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to dis­re­gard any mil­i­tary or­der orig­i­nat­ing in the White House.” I’m re­ally, re­ally glad I didn’t know this at the time.

The book is marred by fac­tual er­rors, in­clud­ing the as­ser­tion that “750,000 men [were] lost in com­bat dur­ing the Civil War.” As many as two-thirds of ca­su­al­ties were the re­sult of dis­ease and other causes. Meri­wether Lewis did not at­tend “Wash­ing­ton and Lee” Univer­sity; the “Lee” was added in honor of Robert E., who was its pres­i­dent af­ter the Civil War. De­fense Sec­re­tary James For­re­stal didn’t shout, “The Rus­sians were com­ing!” when po­lice found him in the street in his pa­ja­mas, raving and de­ranged. (Not to nit­pick, but it a fa­mous — and pretty great — quote: “The Rus­sians are com­ing!”)

Cheever also makes some ques­tion­able as­ser­tions: “No one thought the Civil War would hap­pen”; “Writ­ers are out­laws”; “[Sen. Joe] McCarthy be­came a celebrity in an age be­fore celebrity.” What­ever one’s view of the Ge­orge W. Bush pres­i­dency, it seems a reach to ask rhetor­i­cally, “Was Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush our gen­er­a­tion’s Joe McCarthy?” And then to an­swer to it: “Of course there are plenty of dif­fer­ences be­tween Bush and McCarthy — one was a two-term pres­i­dent and the other a flash-in-the-pan fire­brand, but both danced with the devil of al­co­holism and both con­trib­uted hugely to our cul­ture of fear.” The point be­ing . . .?

Cheever con­cludes, “One of the things many of our mod­ern his­to­ri­ans miss are [sic] the ef­fects of al­co­holism.” Is it re­ally true that our his­to­ri­ans aren’t smelling the booze on the na­tional breath? Her own dili­gent re­searches would ap­pear to con­tra­dict such an as­ser­tion.

DRINK­ING IN AMER­ICA Our Se­cret His­tory By Su­san Cheever Twelve. 258 pp. $28

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