His Amis was true

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

"The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you weight without reducing your alcoholic intake by the smallest degree," wrote the great and greatly hilarious Sir Kingsley Amis in his short essay "The Boozing Man's Diet." As a cocktail pilot myself and an avowed and avid avoider of all diets, I read that sentence with grinning interest. But then again, that's how I read everything ever written by Amis the elder (Kingsley fathered the equally beyond-brilliant Martin Amis).

This year, I eagerly read the chuckle-plucking and beautifully crafted pieces "Kingers" wrote on one of his favorite subjects: alcohol. Collected from a regular magazine column written between 1971 and 1984 and recently released as Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, this manual-sized 300-pager is unfailingly entertaining.

It begins with the "Muse of Booze," a mini-introduction by another erudite sort who knows a thing or two about knocking back a drink or two -- the never boring Christopher Hitchens. Drinking then proceeds -- in mostly short, sparkling bursts -- to cover all aspects of tippling. While there's some datedness and overlap among the many essays, it never becomes in the least bit tedious.

Here's Amis on the accepted orthodoxy of imbibing: "Alcohol science is full of crap. It will tell you, for instance, that drink does not really warm you up, it only makes you feel warm -- oh, I see; and it will go on about alcohol being not a stimulant but a depressant, which turns out to mean that it depresses qualities like shyness and self-criticism, and so makes you behave as if you had been stimulated -- thanks."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amis bleeds out a great deal of unwasted ink on something he was obviously all too familiar with: the accursed hangover. He prescribes some potential palliatives for that next-day plague (though I found washing my hair did not, in fact, help) and separates the hangover into physical and metaphysical components.

Regarding the latter, he wrote, "When the ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy or barely maintained silence about what a s--- you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no crying over spilt milk."

Believe me, just reading that can provide aid against the unbottled demon.

Crammed throughout Drinking are laugh-out-loud passages on how to be cheap at your own parties while coming off otherwise, great cocktail recipes (so as not to "risk spoiling even a mouthful of liquor by foolhardy experiment"), shopping guides, preferred drink and food pairings and expositions on seemingly every libation ever sipped, chugged or even skeptically considered.

Likely because of the snootiness and pretensions associated with it, Amis saved most of his vitriol for the world of wine -- even though he wrote knowingly and at length about it also. In these sections, Amis suggests that if ordering wine in a restaurant makes you nervous, and the "chief generator" of nervousness is a waiter who will "raise his eyebrows at your choice" and "get stroppy if you presume to do some pouring yourself," then ask for an extra glass. Then tell the waiter you believe the wine is overpriced.

When the waiter predictably disagrees, ask him to try it, with the following Amis-described result: "He can't refuse and will infallibly look a Charley as he stands there pouring, sniffing and tasting. When he disagrees a second time, you can thank him for his trouble as man to man or politely insult him for what he's bound to say."

Whether consumed in little sustaining nips or capacious glugging gulps, you are bound to say this little book is as funny and expertly observed as any you've ever read on the eternal pastime of drinking.