Boozed Up And Beaten Down: Noir, Realism, And Alcohol

Booze and crime goes hand in hand like booze and being hugely attractive and winning in life. I am drinking while writing this, because something something simpatico and shit. After speaking with my editor about the topic of this week’s column, I was told “Liam, you’re a pathetic drunk, either clean up your act, or write about it!”

And here we are.

Looking at crime fiction, alcohol near always plays a part, be it a devil, or a welcome, numbing relief. For me, I always think of Philip Marlowe, from Chandler’s books, and Marlowe as the “moral man in an amoral world,” who’s what was referred to as a “hard drinking” man. I always saw these guys as people who drank as a way to cope – when you’re a true noir loser, and fuck, to be the last moral man makes you a loser – you gotta drink. There’s nothing saner.

Drinking has always classically been played as a reflexive action – characters, like Marlowe, taking a drink to punctuate the series of events that have happened, rather than a catalyst. Yet, in the past, alcoholism, particularly in the main characters, was only alluded to, Chandler not necessarily able to just say that Marlowe was pissed most of the time (much like Chandler himself).

But, as crime fiction evolved, so too has its alcohol consumption. Think of characters like those on The Wire, constantly beat down and drinking themselves into a stupor. McNulty can’t handle the constant failures of his profession, seeing through the futility of his job, and booze is the only rational way to deal with it. Consider this exchange between Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon from season one:

McNulty: “What’d you do to piss ‘em off?”

Freamon: “Police work.”

McNulty: “I think I need to buy you a drink.”

Freamon: “Just one?”

There are not victories for the heroes in that show, as in so much of noir, and what victories there are are paltry and shallow. The universe is a joke, so why not get wasted?

For me, when I think of my booze-soaked protagonists, I go most fondly towards Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, the P.I., whose series begins with the masterful The Guards. Taylor is a woeful alcoholic, but tries his absolute best to straighten up and focus when he finds himself with a  reason to actually care about the world again. But, due to outside influences, and his own failings, Taylor falls off the wagon, and the “mystery” plot of The Guards derails midway, with Taylor ending up in rehab, and his world and the case falling apart because of his unstoppable thirst.

Taylor is a fuck-up for sure, but he has that appeal, like Marlowe, like McNulty, of being the good guy in a corrupt world that doesn’t care. It has that romantic ring to it that appeals to readers – that humanist instinct to do right when there are no rewards – the beatific jouissance of tragedy – the same idea of jouissance that leads people to drink, that leads us closer to something good, something pleasurable, knowing that it will bring us pain, and the addictive quality of that pain. Noir is about losers, and there are no bigger losers than those who are not in control. But drinking is our heroes’ way of giving the cruel world the finger – they can take your soul, but not your ability to get good and proper fucked up.

Of course, the drinking goes beyond just our protagonists, and is usually active behind the scenes, also. There’s a proud tradition of hard drinking and hard prose from many of the best pulpy guys, and also from the titans of the literary world like Raymond Carver, Hemingway or literature’s Iggy Pop, Charles Bukowski. These guys, particularly Hemingway and Bukowski, butted heads with the law over various petty crimes through their soused lives, and wrote similarly about losers. The connections between noir and dirty realism are pretty strong, with similar themes of a trying to parse out a victory in a zero-sum world.

The rough-hewn edges of our pulp players are often informed by their authors – not so much with the murders, beatings and shit, but with the certain degree of cynicism, intelligence, sensitivity and humour that are the perfect cocktail to lead to substance abuse. So, when you watch the cop have those six more shots “for the road,” when you want your P.I. or your seat warmer to just get their act together – as if their life isn’t already horrible enough with the murders, intrigue, and the unwinnable – remember,  that drinking is a natural reaction when it looks like the rest of the world is horrid. It’s a trope of noir and crime fiction for a reason.

Hardboiled, noir, and crime fiction in general allow us to romanticise the feelings of bullshit that we see out there, where we identify with the noble fuck-up, the guys who try knowing they’re going to fail, when really, in the real world, you’re probably just going to drink without any greater victory.

It’s enough to make you want to have a drink, hyuk hyuk hyuk (see – I can do cheap shots, too. Versitility, guys – that’s why I’m alone and on my ninth beer).

Liam José is the name given to a highly sophisticated system of
pullies and levers that edits and designs Crime Factory. Upgrades have
included a random text generator, the output of which has appeared in
places like A Twist of Noir, Powder Burn Flash, Flash Fiction
Offensive, and as one of the winning entries of the 2010 WGI at
Drowning Pool. It is serviced irregularly in Melbourne, Australia.