At The Lifted Brow, we have an enviable archive of pieces from incredible writers, some of whom have gone on to publish books. One such book is Around the World in 80 Cocktails by Brow alumni Chad Parkhill. Here we revisit a piece from Chad's fantabulous TLB Booze column, originally publishing in The Lifted Brow Issue 22.
Of all of the great books written about the demon drink, few are as unread and unloved as Malcolm Lowry’s booze-soaked masterpiece, Under the Volcano. There’s a certain piquant inevitability to this state of affairs, since Lowry himself—once considered a successor to no less than James Joyce, and who cracked the New York Times bestseller list in his lifetime—died in penury, having choked on his own vomit, at the age of forty-seven. Although he had notes composed for several works-in-progress, a number of which have appeared posthumously, Under the Volcano was both his second novel and his last. While he is not exactly unknown, time hasn’t been kind to his reputation: when I mention Under the Volcano to friends, many of whom are significantly better read than I am, most admit to never having heard of it or Lowry.
Although Under the Volcano is stylistically rather difficult, the plot itself is simple: Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul in the fictional Mexican city of Quauhnahuac, drinks himself quite literally to death over the course of the Día de Muertos of 1938. His ex-wife, Yvonne, and half-brother, Hugh, accompany him through a series of misadventures, desper-ately trying to curtail his rampaging alcoholism, yet oddly complicit in it (each takes several drinks with the Consul; his alcoholism is evidently so severe that a cold turkey with-drawal from booze would be fatal). The Consul finally dies when, having lost Yvonne and Hugh, he starts an argument with the local police in a bar. They push him outside, shoot him, and throw his body into a ravine.
The particulars of the Consul’s death are hardly the point—although he technically dies from a gunshot wound, what really kills him is his fevered alcohol consumption, which he uses as a salve for his terrifying anxiety. (‘Terrifying’ appears to be one of Lowry’s favourite words; according to 2007 profile of Lowry in The New Yorker, his wife-cum-editor Margerie admonished him for over-using it while drafting Under the Volcano.) The Consul is gripped by a profound sense of dread; he believes himself doomed, and the cure for this pervasive terror ends up bringing about exactly what he feared. Throughout the novel he is driven by a near-mythic vision of drinking mescal in the bar in the town of Parián, under the volcano named Popocatépetl; it is in this very bar that he meets his end. Under the Volcano is therefore a profound meditation on alcohol as pharmakon—the remedy that is also a poison.
When Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac early in the morning of the Día de Muertos, she discovers the Consul at his favourite bar—taking a drink, he claims, only to calm his delirium tremens. “It’s really the shakes that make this kind of life insupportable”, he says. “But they will stop: I was only drinking enough so they would. Just the necessary, the therapeutic drink.” Alcohol has caused the changes in the Consul’s brain chemistry that give him the shakes; alcohol is the only thing that brings relief from the tremors. Lowry’s vision develops this insight into the dual nature of alcohol to a tragic conclusion: in Under the Volcano, the solution that alcohol offers is a final one.
The joys of Under the Volcano lie not in its plot, but rather in its prose and its structure. The Consul’s fall is introduced by a framing narrative: two of Firmin’s friends, the failed film director Jacques Laruelle and the physician Dr. Arturo Díaz Vigil, are sharing a drink in the bar of a rundown hotel that was once a casino, on the Día de Muertos of 1939—precisely one year after the Consul’s death. Although at this stage we don’t know the particulars of his fate, we do know from their conversation that the Consul is doomed. You can’t accuse Lowry of using subtle imagery: the bottle of anís from which the two friends drink is emblazoned with a pitch- fork-wielding devil. Later, Laruelle receives an anthologyof Elizabethan plays he had borrowed from the Consul and promptly lost in the cinema; remembering the Consul’s own fondness for divination through bibliomancy, he opens a page and selects a passage at random to discover the closing lines of Marlowe’s Faustus: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight ... Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall”. At the close of the chapter, Quauhnahauc’s bells toll “dolente ... dolore!” (in Italian, ‘woeful’ and ‘grief’). Lowry’s message is clear: abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Lowry’s imagery isn’t the only heavy-handed aspect of Under the Volcano. The prose, too, is both richly evocative and unrestrained—a riotous orgy of logophilia, thick with allusions to literature both classic and obscure, creates an almost literally intoxicating effect. Under the Volcano therefore achieves a remarkable goal: its prose feels completely shit-faced. Take this description of a storm-front: “From the south an immense archangel, black as thunder, beat up from the Pacific.” The metaphor of storm-as-archangel is technically fine, if not a little hyperbolic, but “black as thunder” introduces some problems: as a simile it doesn’t make much sense (thunder, being sound, is obviously not black) and as a synecdoche it becomes tautological (describing the black- ness of the storm by referring to the blackness of storms). Yet for all that this sentence would make William Strunk, Jr. break out in a cold sweat, it follows a greater logic: according to Chris Acklerley and David Large’s impressive hypertext annotation of Under the Volcano, the black archangel is a reference to Emanuel Swedenborg’s work of Christian mysticism, Heaven and Hell, where black clouds obscure the souls of those who have, through their actions, chosen damnation. For all of Under the Volcano’s verbose stretches, there’s also an eerie precision to Lowry’s writing: later, when the same storm breaks, Laurelle observes “a savage scribble of thunder”.
This same layering of meaning informs the book’s structure: it takes place over twelve chapters and twelve hours (excluding the first chapter’s framing narrative), each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. In this it takes cues from the masterpiece of high modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses. Yet the numbers seven and twelve reappear throughout: Yvonne returns to Quauhnahauc and finds the Consul drinking at the bar at 7:00 am; the Consul intuits that drinking mescal in particular will lead to his death in chapter seven, and begins drinking mescal in earnest in the bar at Parián in chapter twelve; Yvonne is trampled to death by a horse branded with the number seven; the Consul dies at 7:00pm, twelve hours after Yvonne returns. The repetition of these numbers throughout the work ties in not only with Lowry’s obsession with Virgil, whose Aeneid was divided into twelve books, but also with Lowry’s occult interests: seven sins, seven seals of the Apocalypse. Here we have cutting edge (for its time) literary modernism mixing freely with structures borrowed from Latin epic poetry, shot through with Christian mysticism: a heady blend, the kind of thing only an inveterate drunk might think of.
Reading Under the Volcano is, therefore, like hanging out with the smartest drunkard you know (perhaps a washed-up professor). It’s a book of tremendous learning but also a hot mess; somewhere underneath the chaos of its surface lies a deeper structure that we can never quite fathom. It’s easy to identify Lowry with the Consul, but it might be more appropriate to identify him with the book itself.
It’s hard not to read Under the Volcano as a synecdoche of Lowry’s own tragic life. Like the Consul’s, Lowry’s life was, to use a portmanteau he coined while writing October Ferry to Gabriola, an “alcoholocaust”. Unlike the Consul, though, Lowry truly tried to escape the prison of his monstrous thirst. Just before he died, he had, through the assistance of an aversion therapy program that used apomorphine to associate severe nausea with alcohol, finally given up the demon drink. He switched to a non-alcoholic cider named Cydrax, which he praised in a doggerel verse dedicated to the doctor whose program had put him on the wagon. (“Dry cider’s little sibling slakes my thirst. / Its family resemblance keeps it near / Yet free from all the menaces accursed.”) He was nally making good headway on one of his novels-in-progress, October Ferry to Gabriola. Then he relapsed one evening just over ten years after the release of Under the Volcano, got wretchedly drunk, and either took a large dose of Margerie’s barbiturates of his own accord or was fed them by Margerie herself. In either case, the combination proved lethal and he choked on his own vomit. Like the Consul’s death, the precise mechanism of Lowry’s own death doesn’t matter so much as the unfathomable drive for oblivion that lead to it.
In this light, the third and final epigraph for Under the Volcano, from Goethe’s Faust, is bitterly ironic: “Whosoever unceasingly strives upwards ... him can we save.”
Chad Parkhill is a writer and bartender based in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and The Quietus, among others. He is currently the cocktail columnist for the Guardian Australia. His book Around the World in 80 Cocktails was published by Hardie Grant this year.