by Kurt Eisenlohr
(Future Tense, www.futuretense.com) $13.95
BENEATH THE EMPIRE OF THE BIRDS
by Carl Watson
(Apathy Poets) $13
"WHAT BEAUTY CAN compare to that of a cantina in the early morning?" --Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
Three months after reading that line, I was standing on the streets of Cuernavaca at 8:00 a.m. The fact that all the bars were closed matters less than the myth that drove a kid fresh out of college to get in touch with his inner sot by hitchhiking a few thousand miles to where drinking's most complex and elaborate gift to the art of fiction takes place. This myth--of having your drinks and writing, too--is a dangerous muse, not only because of what it does to writers but because of what writers do with a topic that has already been done to death. But then, the easy availability of drinking as a topic for fiction also poses a difficult challenge to those who would mop up after Lowry, Frederick Exley (A Fan's Notes), and gut-bucket bard Charles Bukowski.
In Meat Won't Pay My Light Bill, Kurt Eisenlohr approaches the topic with straightforward prose, funny anecdotes, and a naive (i.e., drunk) narrator who spends the course of the novel trying to win back a girlfriend in Chicago who clearly wants to have nothing to do with him. Although the slice-of-life prose can drag, it rings true to the narrative voice of a barfly navigating the dives of a Michigan resort town in and out of season. Except for an explanation of narrator Lupus Totten's childhood that feels more obligatory than necessary, the vignettes skitter merrily along, sometimes veering into FULL CAP climax, other times twisting into areas where the characters might find something better to do with their lives. In this genre, however (which one might call "gulp fiction"), there's no such luck, even if the hero's pathetic quest for an impossible outcome finds a strange counterpoint in events happening around him, as if by accident.
Beneath the Empire of the Birds, Carl Watson's story collection, takes a more detached (third person, for the most part) view of the drunken life. Watson's ground zero is a rotgut neighborhood of Chicago. Most of his subjects are barely functional human relics, examples of what the twentysomething Totten might have become. Watson's style is clinical, almost analytical: a fiercely well-written portrayal of a man who sets out for a bar and wakes up years later in a flophouse remembering the previous page's outing like it was yesterday; or, a man who fucks up a perfectly decent job as a morgue assistant in the worst, and most literal, way imaginable. There isn't much action in these stories--or, what action there is occurs as fait accompli, told quickly from one stool to the next but then elaborated on by a writer whose aesthetic fuses an unsentimental social awareness with a sardonic sense of humor. When William Kennedy covers this kind of territory in his Albany-based novels, such as Ironweed, even the grittiest stuff seems to be shot by a literary movie camera through a gauzy sensibility; Watson's shots are straight (no chaser).
Far from coaxing a new generation to hit the skids, both these books violate a prime directive of gulp fiction: They thwart readers who would identify with the characters (or, characters/narrators/authors). Not that they are cautionary tales. It's just that the streets of Cuernavaca, the alleys of Los Angeles, and the taverns of upstate New York are lousy with college boys eager to become the next Lowry/ Bukowski/Exley (Dorothy Parker must have warned the girls away from this folly), but after Kurt Eisenlohr unleashes his young drunken hero and Carl Watson depicts the aftermath, anyone who sets out on the road to Chicago to spend the rest of his days in a daze, living in a flophouse "cage" room with chicken wire for a ceiling, is just a fool. After all, what's worth remembering about Under the Volcano is not that it's about drinking, or even that it's by someone who drank a lot, but rather that no beauty can compare to a novel that is great.
Kurt Eisenlohr reads as part of the Titlewave Reading Series (co-curated by the multi-talented Doug Nufer), Sun, Nov 26, 7:30 pm, at Titlewave Fine Used Books, 7 Mercer St. Free.