restricted access Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
Thomas B. Gilmore. Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987. 216 pp. $22.50.

Apart from a chapter each on John Berryman's poetry and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, this important new book concentrates on works of modern fiction [End Page 762] by Malcolm Lowry, Evelyn Waugh, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, George Orwell, and Kingsley Amis. As Thomas Gilmore points out, throughout modern literature "heavy or alcoholic drinking is important in ways or for reasons almost too numerous to mention: a drunken character, a pivotal drunk scene, a theme or subject, or something as elusive as mood. . . ." Although there have been a few good critical discussions of this subject, both in articles and chapters in books on other topics, Gilmore's is the first book-length study to focus specifically on literary depictions of alcoholism and drinking (with special emphasis on the former). The book clearly demonstrates the complexity and importance of its topic and suggests numerous exciting directions for further studies in this relatively neglected field.

Most of the chapters concentrate on a single work or on a single author; as a result, the focus of discussion may range from a detailed examination of a novel or a play to a more general treatment of many individual works, as in the chapter on Cheever. Unifying these chapters is Gilmore's use of medical and scientific perspectives, particularly those of Alcoholics Anonymous, to discuss literary depictions of alcoholism and drinking. Gilmore also consistently shows how the imagination of a great writer can take our understanding of alcoholism far beyond the level of scientific investigations, valuable as they are, toward "the spiritual dimension of drinking." Moreover, although showing how a writer's drinking and his literary work "can shed light on each other," Gilmore uses biographical information only when appropriate and necessary to his argument, tactfully blending such information with sensitive literary analysis. But Gilmore does not limit himself only to writers famous (or infamous) for their drinking, as is evident in his masterful study of Bellow's The Victim.

To be sure, one can question certain features of the book: the unduly heavy reliance on AA perspectives, which for all of their merits have been described as overly narrow by E. M. Jellinek and many other distinguished alcohol researchers, or the implicit equation of the white, upper middle-class, suburban cocktail-party circuit so richly rendered in Cheever's short stories with something as vast and complex as "modern American society." But such things do not detract significantly from a book that has so much to offer the literary specialist and student of alcoholism alike. Clearly written, with a serious but never solemn tone, utterly free of affectation or jargon, and concluding with some intriguing speculations on the relationship between literary modernism and drinking in literature, Equivocal Spirits is an original, highly rewarding book. In it, Thomas Gilmore enriches our understanding both of a fascinating theme in modern literature and of a pervasive problem in modern life. [End Page 763]

Nicholas O. Warner
Claremont McKenna College
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