Bangkok based author Lawrence Osborne has a new novel out, The Glass Kingdom, so what better time to review a book of nonfiction he wrote almost 10 years ago? The Wet and the Dry – A Drinker’s Journey published by Random House in 2013.
A previous book of nonfiction by the author, which I also enjoyed, The Accidental Connoisseur – An Irreverent Journey through the Wine World was a plum assignment, but The Wet and the Dry trumps that traveling narrative by a long chalk. It’s good work if you can find it and Lawrence Osborne has the ability to do just that.
The premise of the book, or one of them, is to wander the drinking and non-drinking world and decipher whether drinking alcohol is a sign of civilization and sanity, or its polar opposite? Put another way, “Is alcohol the creator of the mask or the thing that strips it away”?
Osborne is a comfortable wanderer and doesn’t mind occasionally getting lost, whether on foot, by car or motorcycle. Getting lost is likely part of the destination for this erudite Oxford educated New Yorker, who saw the advantages of pursuing an earlier career in journalism in the USA over England, his England. That climb wasn’t always smooth and it is the matter-of-fact way in which Osborne writes about the slips on the career-ladder that makes his writing enjoyable and accessible. Whether you favor George Will or Charles Bukowski, a Bombay Sapphire and Tonic or a Leo beer, are a teetotaler or in recovery, Osborne will appeal with his relatable travel stories of inebriation in countries where it is easy to get a drink and others where it takes a great deal of effort. It’s an effort that is richly rewarded, for writing material anyway. In one chapter Osborne is in Poland talking with his father-in-law at the time, a renowned musician and composer with a side trait of alcoholism. Asked what writing prospects he had in order to be able to take care of his daughter properly, Osborne succinctly replies, “None”.
The author drinks with a former warlord, alone, which seems to suit him fine, and with Malaysian sex tourists in the deep south of Thailand to see what makes them tick, just to mention a few. As Audrey Hepburn said, “I don’t want to be alone, I want to be left alone”. And so it seems to be with Osborne often enough as he sips a favorite alcoholic drink in some of the more interesting bars of varying classes around the globe, preferably starting at 6:10 p.m. Countries include: Oman, Turkey, Egypt, Thailand, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates as well as Surakarta in Indonesia and Brooklyn, New York. The ending time for Osborne’s drinks is less precise and a jack-knife into a Dubai swimming pool is worked in at least once before he drags himself or is dragged with help to bed to awaken in a wet suit and tie. Osborne finds Dubai to be a city that is “grimly interesting”. What’s not to like so far?
One cannot write a book on drinking without mentioning the mighty hangover. Osborne’s take on the morning after:
“A hangover is … a complex thing. It is slow, meditative; it inclines us to introspection and clarity. The aftereffect of a mild envenoming is cleansing mentally. It enables one to seize one’s mind anew, to build it up again and regain some kind of eccentric courage.”
In reading The Wet and the Dry I learned a lot of what I didn’t know and re-learned much of my world history, which I had long ago forgotten for lack of usefulness. It was Islam that gave us distillation and the Greeks that gave us fermentation. I knew that, maybe? I also learned a lot about Dionysus, the god of wine, knowledge which should come in handy. Harsh realities are also included, such as that alcohol produces a lot of “unnecessary truthfulness”.
Other truths are proffered. When discussing the teetotaler vs the drinker Osborne concludes, “Each finds the other a bore”. I like the egalitarianism in Osborne’s observations. He is a fine observer of human pleasures and miseries, whether the human is drunk or sober.
My favorite chapter starts on page 127 of the 226 page book. Titled Bar’s in a Man’s Life it leads with another esoteric fact: “The term bar was first used in English in 1591 in Robert Greene’s drama A Notable Discovery of Coosnage”. Osborne has an appreciation for the absurdity of life, including his own. There is a comical scene where a hungry writer is motivated to quarter a frozen turkey with a handily available ax, while living on part of a wealthy architect’s compound during a cold and snowy winter. If you can’t picture Lawrence Osborne drinking wine out of a soup bowl you will after reading The Wet and the Dry. For one brief moment he shares the type of misery and reality found in After Life with Osborne in the role played by Ricky Gervais.
Mr. Osborne is a dutiful listener and a keen observer. He takes what he hears and sees and puts it to the written page as well as anyone. The author is on quite a roll with many of his novels in pre or post film production. While I look forward to reading The Glass Kingdom, which arrived at my home in a cardboard box yesterday, I highly recommend his nonfiction books as well. They could be overlooked with all the buzz he is generating at the moment. The Wet and the Dry produces a buzz of its own kind and in the process helps explain the many paradoxes which occur in parts of the world that allow or prohibit alcoholic drinks.
Lawrence Osborne reminds us during his drinking journey logged in at The Wet and the Dry, that it’s always 6:10 p.m., somewhere.