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The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson; book of a lifetime by John Sutherland


Charles Jackson’s is the best novel ever written about alcoholism.  I make that judgement about The Lost Weekend as an alcoholic myself. I read the novel before getting sober and after, and it terrified me on either side of that momentous threshold. Before, because of the uncanny accuracy of Jackson’s depictions of the lies that the alcoholic’s drink-raddled mind tells itself. After I cleaned up, it was four curse-like words in the text which terrified me: there isn’t any cure. One celebrity alcoholic, Herman Mankiewicz (who wrote the script for Citizen Kane), is supposed to have attempted suicide after reading The Lost Weekend.

The story chronicles a five-day binge in 1936 Manhattan. Don Birnam is a talented, but not very talented, writer. He was kicked out of his Ivy League college some years ago, for indiscreet sexual advances towards a fraternity brother. He may, or may not, be gay. The uncertainty is one of the things ‘driving him to drink’.  Don is currently jobless. He has a girlfriend, Helen, who believes in him, and he shares an apartment with a salt-of-the-earth brother, Wick, who is coming round to the ‘there is no cure’ point of view. Don manipulates them both with the skill of the practised alcoholic.

Don manages to avoid leaving town for a short vacation with Helen and Wick and, now off the leash, goes on a glorious weekend bender. He’s a ‘periodic’ (intermittent alcoholic) and the ‘barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot’. He drinks himself into delirium tremens, graphically described. A tiny mouse emerges from a crack in the wall. A bat swoops, there is a crunch, and a stream of blood streaks down the wall. Birnam screams. Then he blacks out. Why, ‘normies’ (as ‘alkies’ call them) wonder, after experiencing that kind of torment, would alcoholics go back to drinking? But they do.

Jackson, himself bisexual, emotionally fragile and dipsomaniac, resolved to write the first novel to describe alcoholism as it really is, rather than as it is demonised in temperance-tract fiction such as Ten Nights in a Barroom, or romanticised as a ladder to the stars in novels such as Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald was, nonetheless, the writer Jackson idolised – there’s a comic moment in the novel when Don, smashed, phones up the wearily sober great author (not for long – Fitzgerald fell off the wagon and drank himself to death aged forty-four).

Jackson made a packet from the novel and its film rights. But his life went to pieces and, drinking again, he killed himself in a Manhattan hotel. There is no cure. If you’re curious, I’ve been clean and sober thirty years and sixty-nine days at the time of writing. Not cured, just waiting it out.

John Sutherland’s latest book, ‘Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation’, is published by Aurum