The Wet and the Dry

  • Lawrence Osborne
  • Crown
  • 240 pp.
  • Reviewed by J. Grigsby Crawford
  • September 20, 2013

The cultural implications of drinking are explored in this boozy, pensive travelogue.

Teetotalers beware: You will hear the clinking of ice cubes inside your tumbler; you will feel the gin being shaken; you will, perhaps, waft the peaty burn of a single malt under your nose; and you will amble in and out of the mind of a drinker/writer who lusts over alcohol not unlike the way Humbert Humbert describes his nymphets — whilst rattling off sentences, such as “It is l’heure du cocktail, and I am content,” without irony.

Thus is The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey, a boozy, pensive travelogue from novelist and journalist Lawrence Osborne. Appropriately enough, Osborne’s story doesn’t drive straight through a single narrative so much as it frolics, gulps and occasionally slurs through a quest across the world to discover the wheres, hows and whys of alcohol’s intersection with culture. (The Hemingways and Hitchenses of yesteryear aren’t alluded to directly in The Wet and the Dry, but their, er, spirits are behind every page.)

Interspersed throughout Osborne’s travels is some reflection on his personal and familial drinking histories. But, like a shot of mescal, it comes on strong and dissipates quickly. (Or, as Osborne notes, “It is, for the English, a common accusation and revelatory of a cast of mind that does not care to submit a mirror-ward glance at its own epic alcoholic lawlessness.”)

There is even a brief encounter with a lover, during the story’s emotional nadir, coming in the form of a boozeless New Year’s Eve on the Arabian peninsula. (Osborne sums up the tryst thusly: “The sleep of the woman in whom the Dionysian thread has not been broken by prohibition and misuse and the misogyny of the Teetotaler God.”)

Aside from the alcoholic factoids and historical tidbits, at the heart of The Wet and the Dry — and where Osborne really hits his stride — is a journalistic investigation of the cultural implications of drinking. Osborne’s travels focus on the Muslim world, where alcohol is nothing if not symbolic of societal repression and hypocrisy (and where the alcohol-as-sex metaphors are never untoward).

The story — in fact the title itself — is one of social dichotomy. The beautiful and the damned. The best of times and the worst of times. East versus West. Those who drink and those who don’t (or pretend they don’t).

What does it symbolize, for the rest of a society, when something so glorious is considered taboo? What happens to people deprived of this symbol of freedom? (Osborne: “Vodka: it is like an enema for the soul.”) What’s the point of pushing something onto the black market when people will get their hands on it anyway? How does alcohol define or represent a culture?

These are the questions that burn at Osborne — a burn he extinguishes with benders in Milan, Java, Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, New York and places in between. (Pro tip from Thai hookers: don’t mix Viagra and Scotch.)

Along the way there are histories of regions, bars and Native American alcoholism. There are explanations of Dionysus, descriptions of dopamine receptors and insights on vodka marketing. And, like any story drowned in hooch, there are frequent meanderings from the task at hand (e.g., “The women there were wonderful authentic sluts, a type that has been eradicated from the city by the police commissars who have so boldly improved all our lives by making our neighborhoods safe for Chihuahuas and homemakers.”)

But spun through it all is a sprawling meditation on alcohol — as a cultural symbol, a social lubricant, a drug.

Written works about drinking often take on the form of the guy at the barstool next to you who always has just one more story to tell you. Maybe you want to quickly pay your tab and sneak out before he ropes you in for another hour, but you usually stay. Maybe you’ll regret the hangover, but you figure what the hell.

Why? Because — as those of us in the liberated, booze-swilling Western world know — alcohol, sometimes, can make for good stories.


J. Grigsby Crawford is the author of The Gringo. He grew up in the Great American West and resides in Washington, D.C.

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