A Drinker's Journey

By Lawrence Osborne

Crown. 226 pp. $25

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Reviewed by David L. Ulin

'He who makes a beast of himself," Samuel Johnson famously observed, "gets rid of the pain of being a man."

His subject is, of course, inebriation and the way that, in the derangement of the senses, we might escape, however briefly, what Lawrence Osborne calls "a loneliness that otherwise cannot be so easily dislodged."

And yet, if Osborne's delightfully idiosyncratic The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey has anything to tell us, it's that there is more to drinking than derangement, that it may lead to a transcendence more profound.

"There is," Osborne notes, "the unhappiness that comes with mundaneness, with normal life, which after all - and without undue exaggeration - leads to old age and death. So the departure from the self makes sense, and it's as easy as walking away from a mask and leaving it useless on the ground behind one."

The Wet and the Dry is a deceptively nuanced book: a paean to drinking, a travelogue unfolding largely through the Islamic states of the Middle East and a memoir of sorts, in which Osborne's upbringing, in "a steadfast English suburb" during the 1970s, becomes a lens through which to read his life.

"The English relationship to drink," he writes, "is so deeply burned into my way of being in the world that to write about drink is to simultaneously write about England, a country I now know almost nothing about since I have lived in New York close to twenty years."

Here, Osborne is addressing time, which, in his view, is both personal and cultural at once. Some of his most potent observations have to do with British influence in the Arab world, how the fallout of decisions that once seemed pragmatic remains with us to this day. In Cairo, he stays (and drinks) at the Windsor Hotel, once "the British Officers' Mess," even as the Jan. 25 revolution takes shape outside. In southern Thailand, he reflects on a Muslim insurgency that wants to bring back "the Sultanate of Pattani . . . a small Islamic state of prior centuries erased from the map when the British, then masters of Malaya, donated the three southern states to the Kingdom of Siam in 1909."

What does this have to do with alcohol? Not much, except for Osborne's contention that drinking sets up a powerful divide between the Arab states and the West.

In that sense, The Wet and the Dry refers not just to drinkers and nondrinkers but also to two very different ways of engaging with the world. It's a point Osborne makes explicit early in the book when he visits Lebanon, "the only Arab country with a wine country . . . the bridge between those two entities canonized as East and West but that could also be called Wet and Dry, Alcoholic and Prohibited."

For Osborne, this is no abstraction; the Lebanese port of Batroun, now a wine center, is said to be where Dionysus was born. "No one remembers," he tells us, "that Dionysianism was the most popular religion of the late empire before the arrival of Christianity. It was Christianity's principal rival." A similar set of tensions, it goes without saying, is in ascendancy today.

Such a conceit might run the risk of falling flat were it not for Osborne's erudition - and his experience. A travel writer and novelist - his books include The Naked Tourist and last year's novel The Forgiven; his dreamlike short story "Volcano" was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2012 - he has lived in Europe, America, and Morocco; currently, he makes his home in Istanbul. That nomadism allows him an ease with the relativity of cultures, an understanding that what we take for granted in one place may be irrelevant, or even dangerous, somewhere else.

All of this gives context to the drinking, making it a matter of philosophical, as opposed to hedonistic, choice. Certainly, Osborne likes his alcohol - he writes knowledgeably and passionately about gin, Scotch, vodka, the history of bars - and he makes no excuses for his delight. He is, however, not an apologist; he knows that drinking, like so much in life, can be both blessing and curse.

"In writing about drink," he reflects, "one is forced to acknowledge that its effects are never calculable or short term; nor are they the scripts that a taste for redemption and confession are liable to bequeath to us. Often it is just blankness, a nonbeing, a failure to show up for life during weeks and even months."

As to where this leaves us, in many ways it is back where we began. "The reasons for hating it are all valid," Osborne admits. "But by the same token they are not really reasons at all. For in the end alcohol is merely us, a materialization of our own nature. To repress it is to repress something that we know about ourselves but cannot celebrate or even accept."