Sunday, May 18, 2008

EVERYDAY DRINKING: THE DISTILLED KINGSLEY AMIS

By Kingsley Amis

Bloomsbury, $19.99, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY SONNY BUNCH

Reading about drinking is kind of like reading about film: I’d rather be enjoying the subject than studying it. But with spirits, as with movies, there exists a breed of critic who both illuminates and entertains and, consequently, is worth reading.



Kingsley Amis falls into that category — a great comic wit, Amis’ writings (both fiction and non) about alcohol are among the very best. As Christopher Hitchens reminds in the introduction to “Everyday Drinking,” “the booze was his muse.”

Most everyone (Mr. Hitchens included) points to the infamous hangover scene in “Lucky Jim” as Mr. Amis’ crowning achievement on the topic. Fair enough. But I prefer a scene near the end of the novel, when, fighting off the effects of something like a dozen drinks, the title character attempts to deliver a lecture to a group of local luminaries. Slogging through his speech “in a blurred, halting mumble that suggested the extremity of his drunkenness,” our hero manages to insult most everyone of prominence in the gathered crowd prior to passing out on stage as his concluding remarks commence.

Those acquainted with alcohol’s more debilitating effects will recognize that mumble (though few of us might admit it), and Mr. Amis’ deft descriptive touch makes it plain he has the authority to write from experience. That experience is nicely gathered in “Everyday Drinking,” a new collection from Bloomsbury Press of Mr. Amis’ key contributions to the genre: “On Drink” (1972), “Every Day Drinking” (1983), and “How’s Your Glass?” (1984). The first is his book on, well, drinks. The second is a collection of columns about the same topic. The third is an interesting oddity — a quiz book designed to test one’s knowledge about the subject and impart new knowledge.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, and I will get to them in a moment, but one thing must be noted up front: As older volumes, Mr. Amis’ writings on certain topics are not quite up to speed. These oversights are most glaring in his discussion of wine. Some points hold true to this day — wines from the Rioja region of Spain remain “quite vile,” for example — but others, not so much. In the intervening three decades, California has emerged as one of the most important areas in the world, as far as vineyards go.

It’s hard to hold this against Amis (he was, after all, a writer and not a psychic), but the absence of Napa Valley from his prose is glaring, at least to an American like myself. (This is, presumably, not much of a problem across the Atlantic where snobbery against American wines continues unabated.) Similarly, the explosion of microbrews and imports has irrevocably altered the landscape of the beer industry. Not mentioned, and not his fault, but something to remember.

These are minor quibbles, though, and they don’t much effect Amis’ writings on his favorite topic: Liquor. To be more exact, various and sundry liquors mixed together (along with wine, juices, and whatever else might be handy) to create delicious (or, at the very least, potent) cocktails. As Mr. Hitchens points out in the introduction to this volume, Amis was “a very slight cocktail bore”—and Hitchens should know, being on good enough terms with Sir Kingsley to have not one but two nicknames for his deceased friend.

If only we could all be so boring. “On Drink” is filled with the most fabulous concoctions, a number of which I forced myself (gun to the head, I swear!) to imbibe once or twice in order to fully appreciate his writings. Who would have imagined, for example, that a vodka martini with a splash of cucumber juice and a slice of the green veggie floating on top would taste so good? Some are better to be discussed than drunk. Consider the gin (or vodka) and orange or peach bitters, a drink so awful it made the Tigne Rose (1 tot each of gin, whisky, rum, vodka, and brandy—in other words, an eye-watering concoction not suitable for the weak of stomach) go down like a chaser.

Those accustomed to throwing the occasional party will find much to cheer for here. If I may, I’d like to especially recommend the Careful Man’s Peachy Punch. This is, without a doubt, the best punch I’ve ever been privy to; white wine, peach wine, vodka, some cut up peaches, and a splash of champagne cider to top it off — it packs a kick and goes down smooth for, as Amis points out, relatively little cash. I served it to a group of younger DC types and their reaction was much the same as mine: ‘twas beloved by all. But, as its name suggests, one must be careful as the drink packs a mean wallop.

However, Amis’ volumes contain far more than drink recipes. His treatise on the hangover (both physical and metaphysical) is among his best known for a reason, and is required reading for the dipsomaniacs amongst us. The passages on ill-informed sommeliers are also entertaining, and worth reading if you’ve ever needed to take a snobby wine waiter down a peg or two.

And he strives to remind us that drinking serves a variety of purposes but, in order to achieve them, the liquid before you must be enjoyed. Don’t pretend to like dry drinks if “you prefer sweet or sweetish ones,” he remonstrates, as this “is probably the result of a confused feeling that sweet drinks are ladies’ drinks, perhaps even old ladies’ drinks. Permit me to say that this is rubbish.”

So drink your Southern Comfort (on ice, please, hold the lime) in peace, brothers. Don’t choke down that Burgundy if it’s too dry for your tastes. After all, we have only so many days in which to drink—why waste them on beverages we don’t care for?

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.

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