Quick Bibs: Friends of Elwood P

Article excerpt

You don't see many lovable drinkers in contemporary fiction, perhaps because contemporary authors are wary of being labeled enablers. It wasn't always that way. In literature and in life, booze used to be something that helped us put our demons to the side, at least briefly, that allowed us to contemplate the ineffable sadness of human experience with a measure of good cheer--melancholy with a beer chaser.

Sure, alcohol has a way, like most of the really fine things in life, of turning on you, of making something good into something very bad indeed. But we're not here to assemble a lineup of destructive drunks like the hero of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, or to rattle off the ever-growing list of 12-step sleuths who dominate today's crime fiction (James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux or Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, for example).

No, this column celebrates the descendants of Elwood P. Dowd, the hero of Mary Chase's Harvey and the happiest lush who ever sipped a martini. (Of course, El-wood had the world's best drinking partner at his side, a six-foot white rabbit named Harvey, who was more than able to match his friend martini for martini.)

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The heroes of the novels listed below are by no means as happy as Elwood--if only they had their own Harveys--but booze isn't their main problem. Life is. When they belly up to the bar, they're looking for a little surcease and the company of a few like-minded souls--fellow drinkers who understand that, in the words of Humphrey Bogart, the whole world is always three drinks behind.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Vintage, 1988 (orig. pub. 1978), $11.95 (0-394-75989-3).

C. W. Sughrue is not, repeat not, on the wagon. Thank God. He may just be the last of the really great drinkers in detective fiction. Sure, he does plenty of drugs, too, but it's booze that really fuels the Sughrue novels, of which The Last Good Kiss is the best. And, no, I'm not going to miss the chance to quote my favorite line in the genre: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. …