The demon drink
Alice Munro’s first experience of drunkenness was traumatic. I can say this with some confidence because she writes about first encounters with alcohol so brilliantly in her only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, and then again, even more convincingly in, “An ounce of cure” in the short story collection Dance of the Happy Shades. The latter, in which a 15-year-old girl raids the whisky cabinet while babysitting, is a very funny piece of writing.
“I drank it off as quickly as possible. I set the glass down and stood looking at my face in the window, half expecting to see it altered. My throat was burning, but I felt nothing else. It was very disappointing, when I had worked myself up to it. But I was not going to let it go at that. I poured another full glass, then filled each of the bottles with water to approximately the level I had seen when I came in. I drank the second glass only a little more slowly than the first. I put the empty glass down on the counter with care, perhaps feeling within my head a rustle of things to come, and went and sat down on a chair in the living room. I reached up and turned on a floor lamp beside the chair, and the room jumped on me.
When I say that I was expecting extravagant results, I do not mean that that I was expecting this. I had thought of some sweeping emotional change, an upsurge of gaiety and irresponsibility, a feeling of lawlessness and escape, accompanied by a little dizziness and perhaps a tendency to giggle out loud. I did not have in mind the ceiling spinning like a great plate someone had thrown at me, nor the pale green blobs of the chairs swelling, converging, disintegrating, playing with me a game full of enormous senseless inanimate malice. My head sank back; I closed my eyes. And at once opened them, opened them wide, threw them out of the chair and down the hall and reached – thank God, thank God! – the Berryman’s bathroom, where I was sick everywhere, everywhere, and dropped like a stone.
From this point on I have no continuous picture of what happened; my memories of the next hour or two are split into vivid and improbable segments, with nothing but murk or uncertainty between. I do remember lying on the bathroom floor looking sideways at the little six-sided tiles, which together in such an admirable and logical pattern, seeing them with the brief broken gratitude and sanity of one who has just been torn to pieces by vomiting.”
Ah, memories. Believe it or not, our narrator’s evening goes even further downhill from here.
Alice Munro is such a great short story writer. Lives of Girls and Women is a good coming of age novel, particularly as female rites of passage stories are so much rarer than their male equivalents, but her understated and perceptive short stories are really special.