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Great Literary Drunks (List by Billie Livingston)
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Great Literary Drunks (List by Billie Livingston)

By 49thShelf
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In AA they say that the definition of an alcoholic is an egomaniac with an insecurity complex and, from my observation, that’s an accurate description. It’s also what makes alcoholics such compelling characters to write about. Growing up in my family, it seemed you couldn’t throw a slice of cold pizza without hitting a drunk and they’ve been staggering through my stories ever since. Here, in no particular order, are a few writers who have a way with the drunken mind. **Billie Livingston is a fiction writer and poet who lives in Vancouver, B.C. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, she grew up in Toronto and Vancouver, and has since lived in Tokyo, Hamburg, Munich and London, England. Her first employment was filling the dairy coolers in a Mac’s Milk. She went on to work varying lengths of time as a file clerk, receptionist, cocktail waitress, model, actor, chocolate sampler and booth host at a plumber’s convention. Her first novel, Going Down Swinging was received as a brilliant debut. Billie’s second novel, Cease to Blush, which drew on a few experiences from her career as a model and actor, was a Globe & Mail Best Book. Her short story collection, Greedy Little Eyes was also a Globe & Mail Best Book and was the winner of the Danuta Gleed Award as well the CBC's inaugural Bookie Prize for short fiction.
The Antagonist
Why it's on the list ...
One might say Coady’s major alcoholic opus is Saints of Big Harbour, but all of her novels depict brilliantly the lonely rage of the sensitive boozer and The Antagonist’s narrator Rank is no exception.
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And I am.

Going so fast it seemed as though I was hovering above myself, watching as I went veil first into those massive oak doors in the foyer because no one makes a getaway in high heels. Just look what happened to Marilyn Monroe – naked, bloated, DOA. That’s what happens when you wear high heels. I put my hands out, just like they taught us in high school gym class, you know, when spotting someone on the trampoline: hold up hands, don’t push, let the person touch and then bounce back to middle. But only an idiot would wear high heels on a trampoline and there was no bouncing back to the middle as those shoes took me down on that hot June day, my sweaty hands flat on the cool oak door panels only long enough to feel the old wood on my palms and I was crashing straight through the doors that hadn’t been properly latched, yards of silk dress floating behind me like a flock of angels as those carved oak slabs were falling silently shut. Magic it was that pieces so large could move with no noise, wrought-iron hinges no doubt well-oiled by the latest sexton. I slipped through the crack and left the musty church behind, all those pews full of stunned guests, and then the sweet outdoors was in front of me but I was crashing backwards as the doors slammed shut, the stupid billowy dress jammed in the doors, and I was smashed back and up, three feet off the top step, hand pounding back into the hard wood, pain dull and distant, and then me, dangling there, garland of flowers down over my eye, battered bouquet of freesias and roses still in my right hand, its scent floating up on the hot summer air, enveloping me in the sweet and squashed miasma of my life.

My life seems to have been about crashing backwards. Ever since I finished high school, which really wasn’t very long ago, I’ve been on the run, so to speak. On the road. I mean, I bolt in the middle of things. Well, I finish some things and bolt. I took off to Europe and then landed in a rehab-sort-of-nuthouse (I wasn’t insane, believe me. I was just temporarily unable to communicate.) I started a degree – Classical Studies. I enjoyed the Greeks and Romans. I enjoyed the books, always looking to them as a getaway, a portal in time. Actually, I enjoyed the building the classes were in. The Classical Studies Department was located in a series of grey Victorian houses that ran along a quiet Halifax street with huge sweeping trees. I still don’t know the name of the trees.

I was pulling at my dress, the skirt wedged up there with the bodice, and the goddamn jeesly antique lace train that Aunt Galronia had insisted on attaching was pulled tight in the door, most of it still inside. I was pulling, wiggling, tugging, my sweaty skin squeaking against the wood, trying to demolish my vintage 1940s wedding dress, and just thinking about the dress made me so mad that I pulled even harder. “So much for antiques,” I hollered. Somewhere in Foster a lawn mower buzzed. A huge jerk and then ripping and buzzing were one roaring sound as the silk and lace tore and I fell to my knees, hands out in front, drooling libations on the indoor/outdoor green carpet covering the steps. And then I was up with the remains of the dress on me, and a bit of the train hanging off my butt with yards of it still inside the doors. I wondered if it was laid out along the aisle like a banquet tablecloth with all the guests on either side waiting for me to be served up and then I heard Grammie say in her clipped dry voice, You know that old saying, he who hesitates is not only lost but miles from the road out, so I launched off the steps, kicking one high heel over the railing, and sending the other soaring over the heads of the late-arriving guests, second cousins from Ecum Secum with lips going round, opening and shutting, not saying anything, me thinking how people mostly get that piscine look when they are horrified and then it was me smiling and panting, not knowing whether to say hello or goodbye or to cry or pose for a picture and then Grammie’s voice again, Now or never, Serrie.

I threw the bouquet up in the air and took three steps at a time because being in bare feet is being eight years old and eight-year-olds don’t worry about how many steps to take, not like a twenty-one-year-old woman in high heels and a princess dress who can only do various forms of teetering.

Flaps of dress fluttered as I ran down Main Street, pulling at the ripped bodice, shedding pieces of silk until there was the red bra that I had worn, the only vestige of the rogue I had thought I was. At least up until we were in front of the preacher. Actually it started when I saw Elizabeth’s head, the back of her head. I admired her wispy bits of hair and thought what a flattering style it was, wondered why it was done so daintily, with little daisies in it. And the hairdo got blurry and I wondered about that too, realizing the daisies were blurry because Elizabeth was right up there now, at the altar with my groom and the preacher and the best man who had been making bad jokes and smacking everyone on the back. And then it was all blurry.

And so I went. I walked up to the front, wondering if the guests could see my red bra, or at least the suggestion of the bra. It was lacy, really pretty, a push-up. But I didn’t think so. I was the only one who knew about it besides Elizabeth who had helped me dress. I focussed on the teeth. There were so many teeth. I assume this is because people were smiling. At weddings, people usually smile, right? Goddamn, it was like being surrounded by Mormons. I always think of Mormons as people with big white teeth. But no one was Mormon here. It was the Foster First United Church, in old-style Nova Scotia, where change is slow like winter and tradition as strong as the forty-five-foot tides of the Bay of Fundy.

Those white teeth became a haze of cotton and the music was squeaking. God, it was terrible, which surprised me – my brother is a concert violinist.

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Why it's on the list ...
It’s hard not to fall in love with the frail determination of Conlin’s newly sober Seraphina Sullivan. Graphic snapshots of Serrie’s drunken past will prevent you from ever romanticizing the self she once was
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Anticipated Results

Anticipated Results

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Why it's on the list ...
Bolen writes drunks with humor, starkness and aplomb. His story Detox is a particularly funny and withering tale of four often-drunk friends who decide it’s time to stage an intervention on the fifth and drunkest of their crew.
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The Romantic
Why it's on the list ...
The story of Abel, the young man who drinks himself to death, and Louis, the woman who loves him is wrenching and funny and necessary.
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Nights Below Station Street
Why it's on the list ...
A recovering alcoholic father who falls off the wagon... Richards is the heartbreaking master of drunks on the wrong side of the tracks.
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The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life

“I will make gashes on my entire body and tattoo it.
I want to be as hideous as a Mongol.
You will see, I will howl in the streets.”
-- Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

The Extinction of the Question Mark

A photograph. A single photograph. White borders blackened with the grease of family fingers groping at the only remaining evidence of themselves: a picture of a man kneeling on all fours in the dirt. He is drunk, he is thin, he is tired. He is Oliver Taylor, a man gazing at a camera like a bewildered animal caught in headlights, looking feral and fetal and altogether strange. It’s the middle of winter, but he seems to have adapted to the bitter cold. A white shirt hangs off his otherwise naked frame like a vestigial remnant of some earlier evolutionary stage; a time when business meant business and men wore suits.

They know he came from elsewhere -- emerged, devolved, transmuted from some earlier incarnation of himself -- because they remember when he lived in a house with a wife, two children, and a cat, and ate roast beef on Sundays and rice pudding for dessert. His wife was called Elaine, the cat called Frosted Flake, and they were those children -- Emma and Llewellyn -- Em and Blue for short.

They liked their roast beef bloody and dripping, and Elaine made the rice pudding with rich, flesh-toned condensed milk because that’s what Oliver’s mother had done during the war. Which war, Elaine never told them, even though they always asked. “The war during which your granny” -- that mysterious entity who lived on the other side of the ocean -- “used condensed milk,” she’d answer obtusely.

Emma and Blue grew up feeling as muddled about the history of the world as they did about their own ancestry. Having learned the futility of asking questions at such a young age, it’s a wonder the question mark didn’t become extinct. They fabricated answers to unasked questions in the rank and damp of the basement where they played “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” They shared secrets and understanding as they crouched by the furnace with a face like a monster in the bowels of their house in Niagara Falls.

It was there that nine-year-old Blue pulled up his sleeve to show Emma the initials he’d carved into his arm with a homemade tattoo gun made from the broken needles of Elaine’s old Singer. Emma had turned away when he’d started to pull the needles downward through his skin the day before. She’d wanted to cry out but she didn’t dare because they were already in trouble. They often were. It was the middle of a Tuesday afternoon and they were hiding in a place infinitely superior to that space between a Formica-topped desk and a doll’s chair one was supposed to occupy in grades three and four.

Blue preferred wearing graffiti to scribbling it on bathroom walls. Emma preferred darkness to daylight. They both preferred being in the basement to most places above-ground, but it was there, on that day, that Emma stared at Blue’s baby-boy bicep and realized for the first time that she and her brother didn’t wear the same skin.

She’d thought they were identical. She’d thought they were both gap-toothed and lonely and saw all the same things, even though her eyes were grey and his green. She had no idea that while she was staring at the horizon like it was icing on a cake at the edge of the world, Blue was squinting in order to avoid staring directly at all that he saw.

But they had always been different. Emma was a round little pudgeball with the type of cheeks peculiar mothers fantasized about biting. She did somersaults on sticky sidewalks, pale limbs over paler skin; she was a tangled, translucent mass, a “Holy Christ, here she comes.” Her brother, on the other hand, was long and lean and getting longer every day, emerging from baby fat into boy-body with alarming speed. He had muscles as tough as straw, and was unconsciously troubled by his limitless potential for physical growth. He was cautious, doubly so, enough for both of them, his posture hunched and timid, his movements measured and deliberate against the clumsy backdrop of his sister tumbling head, belly, then knees over heels.

“It’s my first tattoo,” he declared proudly, speaking as if he’d just adopted the first strange animal in a bestiary he was planning on housing. Because theirs was a world without questions, Emma didn’t ask the obvious. She simply nodded and put her hand to his forehead to see if he had a temperature. She spent that night, and many nights that followed though, wondering if her little brother was afraid of forgetting his name. She wished she could forget hers. She was, after all, named after her mother’s childhood pet -- not a movie star or a war hero or a favourite aunt, but a bouvier -- a four-legged furry thing with a tail like a sawed-off carrot.

In secret defiance Emma had actually changed her name. She was Tabatha -- daughter of the good witch Samantha -- a pretty little blonde girl who lived in a happy suburban home where mischievous witches and warlocks turned up unannounced for tea and inadvertently distressed her poor mortal father with trickery designed to embarrass him in front of curtain-twitching neighbours.

She sensed Blue’s motivation to identify himself was different. Perhaps he was afraid of getting lost in the street. She pictured some kind stranger, a Jimmy Stewart look-alike in a suit and a white hat, approaching her brother and saying in a voice out of a black-and-white movie: “Why, you look lost, son. What’s your name, boy?” Blue would pull up his sleeve to consult his bicep then and the Jimmy Stewart look-alike would exclaim, “What the dickens?”

If it were the fear of being lost and not found that compelled him to etch a deep, dyslexic “LT” into his arm, she would have suggested a different set of initials. Ones that would lead you back to a house with a swimming pool, or a family with twelve kids, or a mother who would buy you skates and take you to hockey practice. Initials you might want to have monogrammed on a set of towels that belong in a house with a finished basement on some street with a name like Thackley Terrace.

Instead, there they were with Elaine and Oliver, all crammed into a tiny three-bedroom house in Niagara Falls, across the street from a restaurant offering french fries and chow mein available twenty-four hours, even though a big closed sign hung across the door at night because of lack of business. The house, a decrepit building that they’d bought for next to nothing, stood on the tawdry main street, sandwiched between a hardware store and a used-clothing store. In its previous incarnation, their house had been a pet food store, evidenced by the basement full of dog food that was part of the bargain. Before that, as Elaine and Oliver deduced on the basis of what lay behind the cheap drywall, it must have been a porn shop. The building was apparently insulated with mouldy copies of Penthouse.

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Why it's on the list ...
Through Gibb you’ll get a good look at how one parent’s retreat into a bottle is on par with the other’s retreat out the door.
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Why it's on the list ...
Robinson writes with intelligence and dark humor about a lost kid who faces the choice of pain at the hands of alcohol-soaked parents or the ruthless reality of the streets.
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