The World According to Rum
If only high-school textbooks were written in the style of Ian Williams's Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 (Nation, $26). The lessons of 10th grade would be more fun and memorable with a wily uncle like Williams spinning subversive yarns of pirates, patriots and corrupt governments. He's a historian who seems to be sampling his subject and exhorting us to remember what we otherwise might drink to forget: that America's origins depended heavily on slave labor and a distilled spirit early imbibers called "kill-devil."
Williams asserts that taxes on rum, not tea, were what turned colonists against King George III. It makes sense, if only because who can imagine getting so stirred up over Earl Grey? The Puritans, contrary to reputation, drank like fish, Williams writes, and as a weapon aimed at the New World's native population, rum was "a potent ethnic cleanser."
One curious legend Williams relates concerns the body of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Britain's greatest naval hero, which reportedly was shipped back home preserved in a cask of rum. Williams slyly notes that, according to one version of the legend, the cask arrived more than a few liters shy.
Why has this rum-soaked draft of history largely gone untold? Williams, a correspondent for the Nation, explains: "Prohibition helped erase the importance of alcohol in general and rum in particular to the country's development. Anything alcoholic became so thoroughly disreputable that to say a founding father took the occasional drink is on par with suggesting that George W. Bush sniffed cocaine; it may be true, but it is not polite to talk about it."
I urge Williams to embark next upon a history of hemp.
"The Nightmare of Every Party"
Has anyone seen Ian Williams at the same time and place as Ian Lendler, author of a madcap book of fun facts, Alcoholica Esoterica (Penguin; paperback, $14)? The two Ians could be the same guy. Lendler not only tells the tall tale about Admiral Nelson's remains, he echoes Williams in a chapter called "Early America: One Nation Under the Influence." Liquor played a role "every step along the way" to America's founding, he writes. In fact, he suggests, the Pilgrims didn't choose to land at Plymouth Rock; the crew of the Mayflower jettisoned them there because the Pilgrims were drinking too much of the ship's beer.
Alcoholica Esoterica offers the dish on every type of spirit in the liquor cabinet, from absinthe to vodka, and in "Mount Lushmore" assembles a Drunkards' Hall of Fame that enshrines Dean Martin, W.C. Fields, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Winston Churchill. The book's shape -- 4 1/2 by 8 inches -- makes it easy to remove from a back pocket while parked on a bar stool. But Lendler recognizes the danger: He warns readers they could turn into Cliff Clavin, the trivia-spouting mailman of TV's "Cheers." "I learned tons of interesting anecdotes and facts" while researching the book, Lendler writes. "I was the nightmare of every party."
His book is loaded with bar-bet-ready snippets of infotainment. Did you know, for instance, that folks back in the day boozed so often because water was fetid and alcohol killed the germs? Or that Johnny Appleseed was traipsing through the 18th-century wilderness planting apple trees to be "used for one reason and one reason only -- to make hard cider"? These tidbits are habit-forming. One is too many and a dozen aren't enough.
A Boy and His Gin Mill
Each season has its own emblematic tipple, and gin is the beverage of autumn. That wisdom comes courtesy of Charlie, J.R. Moehringer's Bogart-esque uncle, in The Tender Bar (Hyperion, $23.95), a memoir of his co-dependent relationship with a Long Island tavern. Desiring male guidance after his father ran off, Moehringer searched for it in a bar called Dickens, where Charlie mixed drinks for a gaggle of world-wise boozers.
A swig or three of crisp autumn gin would be the proper preparation for the first 80 or so pages. It may be bad form to doubt a memoirist's photographic recall of 35-year-old details, but I just didn't buy a lot of Moehringer's early -- and overwritten -- recollections. Patience was rewarded, however. The book ends up being funny, vivid and clever, peppered with self-deprecation and populated by larger-than-life lugs.
Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter, recounts his beginnings in journalism, his checkered love life and his ambivalent feelings toward his mother. Moehringer unleashes a fearless critical eye that targets even Dickens -- could it be that the bar (and the drinking he does there) actually stands between young J.R. and his goals? As a fatherless child, Moehringer saw the bar in the most exalted light: "All manner of men stopped at Dickens, and each walked through the door with a heavy tread, as though laboring under an invisible weight. . . . But when they walked out, they floated."
They were wasted, of course, a reality Moehringer finally grasps after he dries out. He finds his mentor, too, who teaches him that we "must lie to ourselves now and then, tell ourselves that we're capable and strong, that life is good and hard work will be rewarded, and then we must try to make our lies come true." But the clear-eyed sage isn't one of the mooks at Dickens. The male role model Moehringer sought his whole life turned out to be his mom.
I Drink, I Fall Down, No Problem
Few rookie novelists are as self-assured as Tim Relf, the British journalist whose Stag: A Story About Coming of Age -- In a Bar (Warner; paperback, $13.95) chronicles a quartet of university buddies who return to their college town for a three-day bachelor party. During the revelry, the protagonist, an underachieving, overindulging marketing guy named Rob is forced to face the fact that his friends have built lives while he's been haunting the pubs. "How did they become like this?" Rob asks. "It was like they'd lived longer than me."
Stag in outline sounds triter than it is; Relf's gimlet-eyed execution is what makes it a great read. Don't be deterred by the novel's less than appealing start, in which Rob bellyaches about breaking up with the girlfriend he was sure he would marry one day. That part smells like warmed-over Nick Hornby. Once that rough patch is navigated, however, it's clear sailing, as Relf, with nary an ill-considered word, heaps humiliation after humiliation like a stack of flapjacks on poor, sodden Rob. Rob is not the most sympathetic of characters, but he's so feckless (and drinks himself so legless) that you'd have to be heartless not to hope he grabs hold of something firm on his way down. I turned the pages just to see how he'd extricate himself from the fine messes he got himself into, and what disaster he would touch off next. Not that Rob can recall all the trouble he causes. "This is what Saturday nights had become like," he says. "Instead of remembering them I heard about them."
Having set this tone of cringing pathos, Relf could be forgiven for an awkward conclusion. Instead, he delivers elegantly. Rob concludes, "The decision to stop anything was actually dozens, hundreds, thousands of decisions, repeated over and over again." His journey to that insight is riveting. *
Bob Ivry has written for Esquire, Popular Science, Maxim, Spin, Details and Self.