ON QUITTING ALCOHOL by Josip Novakovich
La Distillerie is the name of the Montreal bar where I am writing this essay. I needed to leave my apartment but didn’t know where to go at eleven in the evening, other than to the corner bar three blocks away. You can’t just stay indoors all day or you’ll go insane, or from lack of motion get sick with diabetes or something. And I don’t know any other magnet toward which to gravitate late at night other than a bar. I am drinking Pellegrino here, with ice, while people are drinking gins and tonics, cognacs, and other perilous substances. And the subject I want to write on is abstinence. You know, from booze. Anyway, you can quit religion, but you can still orient yourself by the beauties of various churches and cathedrals and temples and mosques in a city. Cities would look terrible, would lose their souls, without steeples and domes, and likewise, without cafés and bars. I don’t want to drink, but I still like the dark atmosphere with rock music. Anyway, I am done with booze but not with public establishments. Here, I can concentrate on my banal subject matter, banal and necessary.
It’s easy to quit booze; I’ve done it many times. I am paraphrasing Mark Twain who joked about quitting nicotine. Unlike with booze, I’ve had good luck quitting nicotine—I was addicted to smoking when I was twelve; I stole packs of cigarettes from tourists, from Alfa Romeos of Italians who came to hunt wild boar in my hometown. But at the Adriatic, after discovering a nude beach where I went swimming and became a pretty good diver with improved lung capacity—I swam under Western capitalist women and looked up to see sunshine refracting and hairs like sea-weed swaying gently (capitalist women didn’t shave four decades ago)—I completely lost the smoking habit and became athletic. Lost interest in cigarettes, other than for a month ten years later when I house-sat for a wealthy manufacturer and tried to write on typewriters, and upon getting bronchitis, I said, the hell with this, and never looked at cigarettes with desire again. I hardly drank until the age of twenty. In Novi Sad at the end of the first year of medical school, I had a few shots of plum brandy with my roommates, and one of them commented, Who knew you could be fun. Your jokes are really good. You were so damned serious all year long. I was surprised at my euphoric state—it was a combination of acing human anatomy, most dreaded subject, as well as plum brandy. When I announced to my friends that I was quitting medicine to study psychology in the States, they said, OK, now you are no longer funny but insane.
In the States, at Vassar, everybody tended to go to Matthew’s Mug, local pub, to drink beer and vodka tonics and dance to disco, but I preferred to drink coffee and eat bagels with my philosophical friends, disdaining drinking. My roommate, however, who was a fireman and economics major, nearly thirty years old, had a collection of whiskey and cognac, and he attended wine tasting classes and told me that in order to become rich, he needed to be able to socialize with the rich, which meant drinking single malts and fine reds. Every night, he’d offer me a shot of whiskey, and the first semester I always said no, but the second semester, during a deep winter, I occasionally said yes. His method seemed to work; he married an heiress.
The drinking age then was eighteen, and I couldn’t understand all the frolicking and vomiting, etc. While I was transferring credits from the medical school, the assistant dean in charge of transfer students, a graceful Dutch lady, was puzzled as to why I wanted to finish college in two years when I had it so good, and she said, OK, do describe to me your education. We’ll have a picnic, I do want to understand why you quit medicine and came here. And she picked me up in a red Porsche and asked whether I wanted to drive, and I said I didn’t know how to. When she offered me some French Bordeaux Supérieur, I said I didn’t really drink. She laughed and said, So you read Hegel, and you can’t drive and don’t know what to do with fine red wine, and you’ve never had Brie? You are a noble savage! She proceeded to teach me how to drive stick shift and then gave me a glass of wine, which I gulped with clicks in my throat like it was cranberry juice. No, sip it, go slowly, this is not a sports car, it’s wine. And actually don’t drink right away, let it breathe first, let it get used to air, to you, and then kiss it and savor it. Anyway, this lady converted me to enjoying wines. I did explain to the Dean the structure of Yugoslav gymnasium, which I deemed the equivalent of one year of college, and the credits from one year of med school, at least one more. She researched through the Institute of International Education and said, Guess what, you are completely right. And so, after a few bottles of superb French wines, I was advanced from freshman to junior, concluding that there was much educational power in Margaux.
And a decade later, when my cholesterol was high, I bought into the whole health wine propaganda. I needed to keep my arteries clear, not to die like my father, who had tee-totaled all his life. Živili, Na zdravlje, Santé, Zum Wohl, etc. But the pros and cons for drinking clearly make alcohol a losing game. Pros: occasional good moods, some cardiac benefits in moderate drinking. Cons: liver damage, brain damage, cancer risks, cumulative expenses, accident proneness, potential for social embarrassment, for saying inappropriate things, for showing up at work late, and basically for making one’s family and oneself miserable, if not injured, and a huge waste of time—while drinking, you can’t work, and if you drink too much, you need a few hours in the morning to begin functioning properly. Oh, and the heart benefits—at more than three drinks, when you lose muscle coordination, so does your heart, and you actually damage and enlarge the heart muscle, and increase blood pressure. Maybe it’s like aspirin, if you have a mini dose every day, your heart benefits, but try to have five aspirin tablets a day, and you shall bleed to death. So no wonder many people decide to quit booze if they can’t moderate it.
And what is moderation? Once, I declared to my friend, editor of Fiction Magazine, Moshe Mirsky, that I had quit drinking. He turned to me, and in his startled dramatic fashion, with his curly white hair leaping all around his head, said, Quit? My friend, the Talmud exhorts that one should drink wine moderately. Drinking two bottles a day would be immoderation, and drinking nothing at all, is also extreme and immoderate. I warn you, don’t do it.
Here are a couple of examples of lives of my friends who decided to quit. Calvin, a big black dude, the former bass player of the Soul Machine, a band in Arizona. He was my roommate in Las Vegas for half a year when I wrote a terrible novel about Russia. I asked him to celebrate with me when I thought the writing was going well, to share a bottle of Grgich Zinfandel. He said, I haven’t had a drink in twenty-seven years.—Why is that?—After we had a big concert in Phoenix, the day after it, when we seemed to be getting big, I woke up in my Ford Mustang in mid-air. I’d had a bottle of Jack Daniels and many lines of cocaine. My car flew into someone’s yard, hit the wall, and became an accordion. Somehow I crawled out unscathed. That I was so dazed seemed normal, so the cops didn’t test my alcohol levels, which must have been astronomical. I got a written warning, Failure to Control Vehicle. In the meanwhile, perhaps in those few minutes, the only sober man from our band, the drummer, was killed in a car crash. Robbers running away from cops after stealing money from a convenience store ran the red light and smashed into his car, and he was dead. So here I was, I should have died, and he died instead, like Christ, for my sins. That’s how I saw it. —You could have seen it differently. Being sober in that case may have proved dangerous, and your drinking saved you.— No, my friend, that’s not how it is. I’ve been much happier since. I recommend it, would you like to go to AA meetings with me?
I had another friend and roommate three decades ago, Ed, a news photographer for The New York Times, who quit. His story: he was in love with a woman but too shy to talk to her. One New Year’s Eve party he finally had a chance to meet her. He drank a lot to encourage himself to approach her and passed out, and in the morning he complained to his friends that he fucked up. I could have talked to her. Talked to her, his friends said. That you sure did, and not only that, you two had sex in front of everybody on the bed over all the guests' coats and jackets, a Kama Sutra demonstration. And so Ed said, If this was supposed to be the best moment of my life and I don’t remember it even happening because of alcohol, I am quitting. And he did. He chewed tobacco, smoked, had many bad habits, but not booze anymore.
I had a couple of wake-up calls. Once, I was drunk with my publisher from Story Press in Cincinnati. We left Kaldi’s bar in the black ghetto downtown, a heavily policed area, where the cops had incited race riots after killing sixteen young black men in a row in drug wars. As soon as I made a U-turn, where it was illegal, two cop cars flashed at me, and the cops came out and said, Sir, have you been drinking. I said, No. They said, We saw you stagger out of a bar. We are gonna test you. I was terrified—that would mean license suspension, a ticket of at least a thousand USD. As I stepped out, their walkie talkies went off. A quick conversation ensued, and one cop said, You are lucky we have a homicide to attend to. Someone else isn’t lucky. Goodbye, and don’t drink and drive, buddy! Actually, I may have been within legal limits, as you can metabolize one beer an hour, and you can have the alcohol content of two in your blood stream and be marginal. Still, if I had got a DUI, I could, for example, never immigrate to Canada, to Quebec to be specific, which seems strange because a big part of Montreal economy is alcoholic tourism, all the underage kids from the States coming up here to pass out.
I quit drinking once for forty days, and I got the news that a friend of mine shot himself. He was a Jewish English radiologist who was earning fifty thousand dollars a month, married to a French snob. She drove him crazy and left him, and instead of celebrating, the guy shot himself. I happened to have a bottle of unopened wine, which for forty days I had no interest in, but now, I thought, I have to drink in my friend’s honor. Well, I drank the following day, too, and that quitting episode failed.
On another occasion, I quit drinking for six months after falling off a tall deck in Ohio. I went out to admire the stars while taking a leak and didn’t see the edge of the deck, went over it, and fell on a rock, cracking half the rack of ribs on my right side. The excruciating pain taught me good lessons. Don’t drink and look at the sky at the same time. Or just don’t drink, and do look at the sky. And don’t take painkillers. I have no idea what’s so good about them. I found them to dehydrate me, stupify and dizzify me, and basically, I don’t need much help to become stupid. I found them annoying and preferred sheer pain.
In my sixth month of not drinking, I made friends with Robert at the soon-to-be-suicidal Englishman’s party, whom I already mentioned. Robert, also an Englishman, a lawyer specializing in international liquor law, imported wines and gave me a case of the best Fess Parkers for my book party in Pittsburgh. Everybody drank, and I thought, Well, I will have a couple of glasses, too, only today. I had more than a couple, and when I stepped into the dark, I stepped over an uneven stone and sprained my ankle. That didn’t teach me to hop right back on the wagon. Instead, I kept getting together with Robert for wine tastings. He talked poetically about wines, and I tested him once, and he couldn’t tell the difference between his Merlots and Cabs, despite the poetry or perhaps because of it. His favorite was 100 Biches, 100 roaches, as it came from the highest altitudes in France, from one of the oldest vineyards, so the roots sucked lots of minerals, and you could, of course, taste the minerals. Yes, that’s why we drank, to taste the zinc. Pretty much the same reason people eat raw oysters, no?
Last year again I quit for a hundred days and felt great. Then I arrived in Tbilisi, and a friend of mine there told me she had cancer and only a few months to live. We were having a welcome party, a feast, with fancy Georgian wines in earthenware, and after hearing her story, I thought, What the hell, this is too much. I’ll have a couple of glasses to sympathize. The following day we had a tour of some of the oldest wineries in the world, so while listening to the history of wine, of how the word gvino, in Georgian wine, is the origin of the word wine, how Georgian wine was seven thousand years old (now it’s 7001), older than the Biblical world, which is supposed to be not even six thousand years old, and when invited to taste wine fermented as it was in the beginning, under the ground in huge jugs, of course I tasted some, and pretty soon it was clear that I was not on the wagon anymore.
Well, it’s easy to quit. You know, De Quincy bragged about quitting in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Yes, while writing the book, he abstained, but after he published it, he got enough money to keep up the old habit. Sure, it takes money to keep going. And I have done it again. I have quit. I feel like a champ. And now I am not going to digest tragedies with a glass of wine, nor celebrate good events with a glass of wine. I might even attend an AA meeting to see whether that gives me firmer and steadier resolve to be on the wagon. (I actually want to attend an AA meeting because I want to write a silly story about AA). Next time something bad happens, I will think, It could be worse if I get drunk. And if something good happens, I’ll say, It’s great, why ruin it with risky poisons? If one wants to drink, there’s always a reason to drink. And if one enjoys life, or suffers, there’s always a good reason not to drink. Things could always become worse. I’d rather be drunk than old; lyrics of an old Serbian folk song, translated: It’s worse to be both drunk and old. At least I can be sober and conscious. Ok, I won’t exaggerate about consciousness.
Will I never drink again? That seems like a sad proposition. Really, life has to be a moody affair, without reprieve? Hm, but yes, I can look at the sky. While I kiss the sky, says Jimi Hendrix… well, not exactly an example of sobriety. But being sober for days, alert and calm, with my blood pressure falling from high to the low normal range, that feels like a great state of intoxication. I’ve never had heroin, but perhaps that’s what heroin addicts aim for, this kind of calm and peace. It turns out that the best mind-expanding drug is water with a lemon twist. The hell with it, I’ll have another Pellegrino, and I don’t envy the seemingly euphoric drunks around me.
That reminds me of how some thirty-five years ago, my friend Boris and I got together with an acquaintance of mine, a Hungarian Baptist 22-year-old nurse, a striking tall and graceful woman, and we invited her to a Biergarten in downtown Stuttgart. My sister, a cardiac nurse in Stuttgart, had introduced us. Boris and I had beer, which displeased Martha, and while sipping her mineral water, she looked around at the drunken people who sang and toasted and laughed, and said, Just look at them. They think they are happy, and they are not aware at all how profoundly unhappy they are. Boris and I ordered another round. Wow, I said, I didn’t know fresh Warsteiner tasted so much better than bottled. This is amazing! Boris, are we profoundly unhappy? I asked. Profoundly, he answered. I never saw her again, but I saw many a beer mug afterwards.
That reminds me—don’t mind me, many things remind me—of my asking a cab driver in Dublin where the best tavern for fresh Guinness was. He said, Wrong man to ask, I don’t drink.—Really, but you are Irish.—Yes, they haven’t revoked my citizenship, strangely enough, he said. How is that possible?—Like this: I was drinking too much, and I was engaged to a young lady, and she said, Listen Fred, it’s either me or booze. Oh, dear, I said. I won’t drink again, and you know what, I never did and don’t miss it at all.—Your wife must be proud of you.—Oh, I quit her, too, a week later. She didn’t realize what she was proposing. I liked her when drunk, but without booze, she seemed too bossy.
Anyway, now at La Distillerie, I wonder, Was Martha wrong? I look around, people laugh too loudly for my taste—humor I enjoy, but let’s not have loud spasms over it—and think, Are they happy? Well, you know, who knows. To my health, I tell myself, because who will talk to a sober man in a bar anyway, Na zdravlye, and I drink the best blood-thinner and tranquilizer in the world, water.
Josip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia to the United States at the age of 20. He has published a dozen books, including a novel, April Fool's Day (in ten languages), four story collections (Infidelities, Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Heritage of Smoke) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award and an American Book Award, and in 2013 he was a Man Booker International Award finalist. He teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.