The Lost Weekend (1944)
For all the obeisance we pay to literature, it is remarkably rare for a novel to actually change, or help change, the culture. Nor is it necessarily, nor even likely, the "serious" books that effect the change. In terms of it's political impact, there may never have been a more important novel than Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is hardly the stuff of academic studies and literary criticism. Similarly, The Lost Weekend, though in many ways resembling nothing so much as a pulp fiction or a hardboiled noir, had a tremendous influence on American attitudes towards alcoholism and alcoholics, making it a surprisingly significant book.
Charles Jackson's semi-autobiographical tale follows the "promising" writer Don Birnam for one four day weekend as he descends into the depths of alcoholic despair and debauchery. Birnam's overly protective younger brother, Wick, goes out of town, leaving Don on his own in their apartment, even though he fears that, as usual, Don will take advantage of his independence to go on a binge. Wick has tried to limit the damage by controlling Don's allowance, from a family trust, but Don has perfected all kinds of scams for getting more and as the weekend progresses he comes up with some new ones. These include everything from stealing a purse to a rather pitiful attempt to find a pawn shop that's open on Yom Kippur, to hock his typewriter. Finally, he even steals and pawns his girlfriend's fur coat after she, Helen, tracks him down and tries nursing him through a period of delirium.
Besides the robberies from family, friends, and strangers, Jackson shows the effect of the drinking on Don's behavior towards others as he stands up a dinner date, takes advantage of a kindly local merchant, and unmercifully exploits Wick and Helen and their concern for him. He also shows the physical effects in Don's urgent need for drink, a brief stay at Bellevue (or a hospital very much like it) after falling down the stairs and fracturing his skull, and finally in the chillingly described delirium tremens and hallucinations.
Books, movies, and television have all made alcoholism a staple theme, but when Jackson wrote this book alcohol was merely a comic device in literature, and alcoholism was taken to be a function of the liquor itself and of the spiritual weakness of the drunk. Much of the book anticipates future findings about the true nature of the disease. In the first place, Don is not a skid row derelict. He's a cultured and talented young man from a decent family. Nor is he simply beholden to the bottle; his alcoholism is just a manifestation of much deeper psychological problems, in his case either repressed homosexuality or fear of the very possibility. His downward spiral began in college after an incident involving a crush on a fraternity brother and he reacts with horror when a male nurse at Bellevue propositions him. Even if he were to stop drinking, Don Birnam would still be a profoundly troubled man, would still be desperately ill.
Jackson also anticipates the concept of "enablers", which is what the folks around Birnam really are. Wick and Helen obviously care about him, but their willingness to cover for him and their unwillingness to confront him makes them participants in the problem. They and Don are kind of archetypal examples of dysfunction as the drinking has become the core of his existence, shutting out any capacity to relate honestly with others, and they have been reduced to lying, to him and to themselves, and compensating for his behavior, essentially putting his drinking at the core of their lives too.
In all of this Jackson was years ahead of his time. The book, which became a bestseller, and the excellent Billy Wilder film version, which studios were reluctant to make but which became a surprise hit and Academy Award winner, ushered in an era when attitudes towards alcoholism began to change and the hitherto hidden problem began to be addressed more honestly. But beyond this social impact, it's just a really good book, one that stands the test of time and which has probably never been bettered in its portrait of an alcoholic.
See also:General Literature
-ESSAY : Tanked texts : A top-shelf guide to literature's finest tipplers. (Brian Bouldrey, March 4, 1998, SF Bay Guardian)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd