This book took me a little while to catch the rhythm of and for that while I kept wanting to stop. Once I picked it up and once it opened up a little and began to explore some of the secondary characters I was entirely hooked. On the surface, and when you read the descriptions and many of the reviews you go into this expecting a story absolutely drenched in alcohol. And it is one. And it’s about alcoholism but also it’s not about that. I think about those other books and movies about alcoholism and drug abuse particularly The Lost Weekend, Flight, Days of Wine and Roses, and Requiem for a Dream, and I also think about how empty they feel to me. I think some of the absolute best writing about alcoholism comes from the exposition parts of Stephen King books when a character is a drunk. The opening 1/3 of Doctor Sleep is more terrifying than the rest of the book than the horror elements as I feel how trapped and saturated Danny is.
This book though, rather than being about alcohol and feeling the void, explores the void. We have three characters who all experience the void of modern life characterized in different ways (as the loss of Empire, as the loss of Masculinity, as the lies about progress and opporunity). As the novel deals with each of these three we begin to better understand what motivates them, and when we turn to the drinking, we also understand why this manifestation of the emptiness is the one they spend the most time with: it’s the only one you can fix.
The Consul, Geoffrey Fermin, is a British attache living in Mexico in the 1930s ostensibly acting as a foreign relation official and keeping an eye out for Mexican involvement in the Spanish War or connections with Nazi Germany. But his life is empty and he’s going through a divorce, so he drinks. And boy he does drink.
His wife Yvonne is slowly making her way down to Mexico to finalize their divorce and to try to bring him back from the brink. She’s a failed American movie actress trying to figure out what her next steps are. She pairs up with Hugh, the Consul’s brother, a waylaid adventure seeker who realizes there’s no real adventure any more and even fighting in Spain is at best dilettantism.
The book swirls these three together in Mexico, with the ancient landscape, the total disregard for the British Empire, and lets them stew.
It’s a very transitional book, bridging Modernism to contemporary British life, and it takes place in a wholly non-Empire space (at least a British one). It ended up being very rewarding, and I am glad I read this at 37 and not 29, so I didn’t take the Hugh sections on the chin.