The hangover artist

Kingsley Amis was a hangover artist. Had he written nothing more than his description of Jim Dixon regaining consciousness after a bender, his place in literature would be secure. “He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning,” Amis writes in “Lucky Jim,” his first (and best) novel. Dixon’s “mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Feeling bad isn’t such a bad thing, from Amis’s point of view. With its “vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure” of guilt and shame, the hangover provides a “unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization.” In his book “On Drink,” Amis recommends a raft of remedies for the Physical Hangover and then gets on to the Metaphysical Hangover, a combination of “anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future” that may or may not be the result of alcoholic overindulgence. Dealing with the Metaphysical part of the equation entails reading Solzhenitsyn, which “will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have,” and listening to Miles Davis, which “will suggest to you that, however gloomy life may be, it cannot possibly be as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be.”

“On Drink” is one of three slender books Amis cobbled together from his newspaper columns on the subject in the ’70s and ’80s, the others being “Everyday Drinking” and “How’s Your Glass?” (the British equivalent of the expression that serves as the title for this column). They are back in print at last, Bloomsbury having gathered them into one delightful volume under the title “Everyday Drinking” that’s now hitting bookstore shelves. It is essential reading for any literate bibber.

What sort of drinks scribbler is Kingsley Amis? Quirky, enormously opinionated, wickedly funny, and ever wary of flummery. And not unhelpful, as far as it goes: He punctuates the text with “general principles” of drinking and drink-making, many of which are perfectly sound, such as “G.P. 3”: “It is more important that a cold drink should be as cold as possible than that it should be as concentrated as possible.” Quite right. It is impossible to get a cocktail seriously cold without prolonged contact with ice, whether through shaking or stirring, which means that some of that ice will melt in the process, thus diluting one’s gin-and-vermouth with a little water. Not to worry – the slight dilution is part of the taste and texture of a proper Martini. Amis, by the way, preferred to garnish his Martinis with cocktail onions, which made them, strictly speaking, Gibsons.

Less sound, but more revealing, is the writer’s first general principle, which recommends (short of serving some vile Balkan plonk) that one always go for quantity over quality in drink. Amis drank in amounts that would stagger – and stagger the imagination of – the average early 21st-century American. It sometimes left him the worse for wear: “After half a dozen large Dry Martinis and a proper lunch,” Amis writes, “my customary skill with the commas and semicolons becomes a little eroded.” Drink as much as he did and you will need to economize; but if your drinking is rather more moderate, you can afford to drink well.

Some of Amis’s general principles hit far of the mark. Take G.P. 7, derived from the novelist’s belief that a quick and easy Whisky Collins made from a generic “bitter lemon” soda is all one needs in the Collins department: “Never despise a drink because it is easy to make and/or uses commercial mixes.” True, there are plenty of fine drinks that are dead simple: This summer I plan to enjoy Dark and Stormies, which entail nothing more complicated than pouring Gosling’s Black Seal rum and Barritt’s Ginger Beer over ice in a highball glass. But, pace Amis, I don’t hesitate to despise drinks made with commercial mixes if the shortcuts result in inferior drinks. And the Collins family is Exhibit A in the category of cocktails ruined by prefab junk.

That said, the back half of Amis’s seventh general principle – in which he explains why an “Instant Whiskey Collins” is good enough – is worth mulling: “Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naive – or worse.” This is what separates Amis from the garden-variety cocktail columnist (other than being one of the great writers of the 20th century): His approach to drinking expresses a coherent, compelling worldview reflexively opposed to snobbish pretense.

For Amis, nowhere is such phoniness more abundant than in the posturing of wine connoisseurs. And though he had an abundant knowledge of wine basics (to have any more than that, he says, one must have “a rich father, and I missed it”), he sneered at anyone who dared mention tannin or chalky soil. He was out to make such expertise “seem like an accomplishment on the level of knowing about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica or the history of tattooing – well worth while, but hardly in the mainstream of serious thought.”

Then again, when it came to something Amis actually cared about, he could be as punctilious as the archest of oenologists. A Macallan man (at least when someone else was paying), the novelist ponders which bottled water is best for adding a splash to one’s glass of single malt, Volvic or Highland Spring. It is a curious palate that finds no important differences among French champagnes but can identify the comparative virtues of a few drops of water in whisky.

Water was all Amis would think of putting in his Macallan (no ice, please). But he was willing to mix garden-variety blended Scotch in the occasional cocktail. One of his own invention entailed making an Old-Fashioned with Scotch as the spirit and the Italian liqueur Amaretto as the sweetener (with bitters as the bitters). He called it an Antiquato, which “is Italian for ‘old-fashioned.’ Dead cunning, what?”

No doubt, as is the book as a whole.