Malcolm Lowry was a drunk who had one “great book” in him. That was also true for Frederick Exley, author of A Fan’s Notes. Although I couldn’t get behind Exley the man – his book is autobiographical – I thought his writing was wonderful. He also told a compelling story about how alcohol ruined his life. He was institutionalised, like Lowry, and was a troubled man. That’s being diplomatic; he was a self-centred shit. I suspect they both were.
Under the Volcano is not an autobiography, but its protagonist is a drunk, and Lowry captures the nightmare of dipsomania perfectly. Including its effect on others. Regarded as one of the great books of the twentieth century, I read this purely to increase my brainpower. By the time I’d finished, I was uncertain if it had been a good idea.
Parts of the book are brilliant. The drunken consul, drinking steadily through the day, his mind unravelling, is a stunning portrayal. As someone who spent his early years in a similar haze, I can’t think of another author who does this so beautifully.
The problem is that there’s almost no story. Now I’m as happy as the next literary snob to read books that go nowhere. But this one goes nowhere is such excruciating detail that about half way through you start going mad. Perhaps that’s the point.
I can’t say I regret reading it. His writing is almost flawless, and when he hits his stride he is magnificent. But there just wasn’t enough of the good juice to keep me happy.