Larry Brown’s short story The Apprentice begins: “This can’t be living. I drank too much Old Milwaukee and wake up in the morning and it tastes like old bread crusts in my mouth.” To anyone familiar with Brown’s work, the narrator’s admission falls in line with most of the characters populating his novels and short stories—these are hard drinking, hardworking folks whose precarious existences are made less desperate by alcohol.
But what The Apprentice reveals about life in the gritty South is not only an abundance of hard drinking, but the close relationship that this practice often has to writing. Brown’s narrator is a frustrated writer who fashions himself a kind of redneck literati. He finds the writing life to be despairing. Rejections from would-be publishers fill his mailbox. Fueling his anxiety is that his wife—a teetotaler by comparison—gets into the writing game. While she discovers a flowering literary talent through good old-fashioned hard work, he placates his own failures by giving in to his alcoholic impulses, going out and drinking while she dutifully pecks away at the typewriter. By the end of the story, husband and wife are estranged, her success in publishing driving a wedge between them.
Taken on its own, the story reads a like one artist’s awakening and another’s frustration. His wife’s discovery of the muse frees her from an uninspired life, while the narrator’s aspirations never reach fruition. But when read alongside a saturated tradition of Southern literary history—one chock-full of drunks and drinkers—The Apprentice reflects the close proximity that has long existed between the author and the bottle. Well-read though he might be, Brown’s narrator drinks problematically, and this becomes a central theme of the story. What will win out in the narrator’s life, Brown asks us to ponder, the buzz or the book?
A native of Oxford, Mississippi, Brown is one in a long line who responded to the fermented literary tradition of his hometown. William Faulkner’s grave, just a stone’s throw away from the bookstore Brown frequented, remains perpetually littered with half-empty (or half-full?) liquor bottles that adorn the headstone like clanky flower vases. Faulkner will, of course, always be remembered as a writer, though after a dozen trips to Oxford, I’ve yet to see books stacked atop his grave in memoriam. Whether an apprentice like Brown or a master like Faulkner, if one writes of and from the South, a liquor bottle is likely nearby—that, or a copy of AA’s Big Book.
More than a place where its literature is populated by drinkers, the South as a region boasts of a heritage preoccupied with alcohol. This cultural history is complicated and oftentimes contradictory. For me, not a native Southerner, these contradictions were first apparent while attending college in Kentucky. At the time, the county in which our college was located was dry: Alcohol could not be bought or sold within county limits. The campus, however, did not prohibit alcohol, so long it was consumed from an unoriginal container. This could be done, by the way, while conversing with campus police. Students went on beer runs to a neighboring county and arrived back to campus as conquering heroes whose dumpy cars looked as if they were weighed down with cement blocks. Oftentimes, students would challenge one another to see who could swill the most beer between the liquor store and the campus limits.
Stupid and reckless, I know, and this is the point. Why did such dry laws exist if they naturally encouraged more reckless behavior? Why would the campus not prohibit drinking when the county did? Was drinking in this county, in this state, in this region somehow more dangerous or “wrong” than it was in the Michigan town from which I came?
So what is it with alcohol south of the Mason-Dixon Line? The answer is predictably complicated. Alcohol has long held a precarious occupation within the Southern imaginary, a sentiment felt strongly by us interlopers. Reflecting on a trip through the South in the 1940s, foreign correspondent John Gunther offered the following account:
Dry as the South may be in some spots, it is also the hardest-drinking region I have ever seen in the world, and the area with the worst drinking habits by far. There are no bars permitted in most cities; hence, people drink by the private bottle, and, as always, hypocrisy begets disorderly behavior. Never in Port Said, Shanghai, or Marseilles have I seen the kind of drinking that goes on in Atlanta, Houston, or Memphis every Saturday night—with officers in uniform vomiting in hotel lobbies, men and women of the country-club category being carried off the dance floor by disinterested waiters….
Gunther identifies a paradox of Southern social life: How can a region whose drinking laws exist to prevent consumption be populated with the most hypocritical and habitual consumers? Gunther’s observations speak to how many outsiders perceived a region that unapologetically accepted a culture preaching one thing while practicing another. For hard-drinking Southerners, Saturday night binges were completely separate from Sunday morning litanies, and these incongruities remained in line with the region’s anti-modern stance on social progress. Only in a place where liquored breath and glazed eyes nod in agreement with preachy moralizing does such behavior occur without scrutiny and self-reflection.
The cultural ambiguities surrounding booze often occupy centrality in Southern literature, not to mention the fact that many of the region’s most celebrated authors have had troubling personal relationships with the bottle. This begs an age-old question, the same one always asked of the afflicted artist: Does alcohol unlock the genius, or does the genius drive the drinking? This question is, of course, reductive, but it possesses a different valence when considering authors from a region whose cultural self-making requires the ability to hold court with a pint tucked in the rear pocket.
A brief glance through the Southern canon produces a long list of memorable drunks: the vicious Simon Legree of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sadistic drunken Pap of Huck Finn, the drunken philosophizer Mr. Compson of The Sound and the Fury. When read as a notorious lineage of alcoholics, these and other Southern sots suggest that drinking in the South means more than a mere rite of passage, more than simply what people do, and it therefore becomes irresponsible to dismiss alcohol as a mere “prop” when considering how its habitual consumption so often borrows trouble. What has often been understood as a nostalgic reenacting of Southern personhood tastes quite different when considering the very real dangers of alcoholism, and the brief lives of too many writers attest to the threat of muddling literary talent like a cheap whiskey sour (both Brown and Faulkner died young, no doubt due in part to hard living). There is nothing funny or romantic about how Larry Brown’s protagonist self-medicates, and it is not too far a stretch to assume that he is headed for the bottom.
I cite these dangers in mythologizing literary drunks only to show that alcohol and drinking are deserving of critique for the dangers they pose. (Anyone who watched season one of HBO’s True Detective quickly saw how heavy drinking, even alcoholic drinking, is still romanticized. Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, was clearly an alcoholic, and his philosophizing became increasingly pedantic with every can of Old Milwaukee. His drunkenness did not compromise the mission, however; it almost seemed to fuel his otherworldly knowledge of the case.) This is not to say that alcohol and drinking cannot be tastefully appropriated as props to be romanticized or recalled wistfully. I’d like to conclude with a look at a more upbeat example that lightly conflates the Southern literary drunk with the Southern literary preoccupation with drinking. (This is bourbon country, after all.)
In his essay Bourbon, Neat, Louisiana writer Walker Percy traces moments in his youth alongside sentimental experiences with alcohol. His college drinking days are not without irony, either. North Carolina remained under statewide prohibition when Percy was an undergraduate at Chapel Hill, though this did not hinder his preferred escape—swigging bourbon spiked in a Coke bottle—from the intimidating glare of co-eds at the Delta dance: “It’s awful. Tears start from eyes, faces turn red. ‘Hot damn, that’s good!’” While on a blind date for the Duke-North Carolina football game, Percy soothes his nerves the appropriate way: “Take a drink, by now from a proper concave hip flask (a long way from the Delta Coke bottle) with a hinged top.… The taste of the Bourbon (Cream of Kentucky) and the smell of her fuse with the brilliant Carolina fall and the sounds of the crowd and the hit of the linemen in a single synesthesia.”
And of course any treatise on Kentucky’s spirit would be remiss without reference to the Derby: “Somebody gives a julep party, people drink them like cocktails, forgetting that a good julep holds at least five ounces of Bourbon. Men fall face-down unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesic.”
These snippets don’t do justice to the essay’s lighthearted tone. Percy is not interested in treating alcohol in any serious way (he says as much at the beginning), though the humor cannot dispel a more serious undertone. Sure, the Derby Day juleps are memorable, but the fun comes at the expense of men “face-down” and women “disconsolate.” Appropriate to an essay on drinking, Percy conjures up the image of William Faulkner:
[I]magine William Faulkner, having just finished Absalom, Absalom!, drained, written out, pissed off, feeling himself over the edge and out of it, nowhere but he goes somewhere, his favorite hunting place in the Delta wilderness [and] … shivering and snot-nosed, takes out a flat pint of any Bourbon at all and flatfoots about a third of it. He shivers again but not from the cold.
You can almost taste it, or at the very least feel it. For Percy, bourbon is not some demon rum that fuels alcoholism, and his Faulkner is not the man who infamously received third-degree burns after passing out on a hotel radiator. Percy’s Faulkner was a particular kind of genius from a particular place where writing so profoundly about the world around him required the occasional morning pull. Percy’s portrayal recalls this passage from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses:
There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor […] This it seemed to him on this December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whisky.
One cannot help but read these lines as ominous, as Faulkner’s own alcoholism—born and bred in these formative rituals of Southern masculinity—ultimately proved self-destructive.
By Dr. Conor Picken
Photo illustration by Jessica Ebelhar
Dr. Conor Picken, assistant professor of English and director of the Brown Leadership Community at Bellarmine University, is a native of Michigan who honed his interest in demystifying stereotypes of Southern writers and alcohol as a graduate student at Louisiana State University. There’s a tendency to romanticize drinking and genius, he says, but as a bartender in New Orleans once told him, “This place just consumes people.” Dr. Picken adapted this essay from a paper he presented at the Walker Percy Literary Festival in St. Francisville, La., in June 2015.