The Alcoholics, by Jim Thompson

Alcoholics cvr

Jim Thompson’s 1953 novella covers a day in the life of a residential clinic for alcoholics – the El Healtho, which faces the Pacific to the south of Los Angeles.  It is run by psychiatrist Dr Pasteur Semelweiss Murphy, who unsurprisingly calls himself Dr Peter S Murphy.  Such silly names hint at broad comedy, or perhaps a satirical look at the drying-out industry, but the story has few laughs, though neither does it contain much of Thompson’s famed darkness of tone.  Nor does it justify the crime tag with which joint publishers Black Lizard and Vintage labelled this 1993 reissue.

It’s a stressful day for Murphy: El Healtho is under threat of closure because he is so dedicated to helping alcoholics that he has been running at a loss.  If he cannot come up with $15,000 that very day, El Healtho is finito.  The story opens with him having been in the ocean for three hours in a futile attempt at suicide, but even that doesn’t work.  His future looks grim.

He does have an opportunity to obtain the required funds, if he can park his ethics.  The scion of a rich family has been given a lobotomy in New York and his relatives want somewhere obscure to park him – and somewhere which will take him, because the best care he can receive is in New York, where the operation was carried out.  No other establishment was willing to accept him despite the generous fee offered by the family.  Murphy has provisionally said yes and the patient is on the premises, though no cash has yet changed hands.  Today is the day, so does Murphy pocket what is a bribe, or refuse it?  He knows that taking it will be a betrayal of his principles, and a surgical case in a rehab centre will be seen as such by others.  Can he live with the moral implications even if it means the survival of what he holds dear?  It’s certainly a quandary.

Murphy’s selflessness is contrasted with another doctor who works for the family wishing to place the lobotomy patient in the clinic.  Dr Pethborg is rich and influential, because he possesses ‘the trait of making no move which did not somehow contribute to his personal advancement.’  It is entirely possible that this portrait reflected Thompson’s own jaundiced view of the medical profession.  It is a pleasure then when Murphy gets one over on him, finding a way to keep the money but salve his conscience by returning the patient to where he will be best looked after.

The book is surprisingly optimistic about the possibilities for alcoholics’ recovery, with the simplistic message, which Doc Murphy learns from his patients themselves, that the key is having something positive to do to enable them to reengage with life without booze as a crutch.  It’s hard to believe it could be that straightforward because a huge element in the psychology of the alcoholic is shown to be an ability for deception, of self and others, so all the good sense in the world is unlikely to persuade them to dry out; in any case that process is shown to be a revolving door, with the patients repeatedly leaving sober but returning as long as the cues which encourage drinking are present.

It’s not clear why this cohort should be any different to the ‘hundreds’ of patients Murphy says he has had in the past, though a clue may lie in Thomspon’s psychology.  An ad man who has checked in claims to be at the top of his profession, and Murphy acknowledges that an alcoholic has to be good at the job to be tolerated for other failings.  He thinks, however, that while the ad man may be good now, in ten or fifteen years it will be a different story.  Thompson was surely thinking about himself when he wrote that, helpless in sacrificing future prospects to present addiction but still hoping that it will work out alright.

That cure for alcoholism is not the only unconvincing remedy in the book.  On the staff side one character, a nurse, is shown to have sadistic tendencies, and Thompson depicts this as a symptom of her difficult childhood, another being an annoying lisp.  She could have been a precursor to Nurse Ratched, yet she is easily redeemed, essentially by Murphy getting the hots for her when he finds her naked, slapping her backside before having sex with her, and finding that as he expected she is a virgin.  Of course now unrepressed she reciprocates his affection, fortunately for his professional career, and all is happy – no more scraping bone with hypodermic needles in future or tying up patients’ testicles with the sheets, a couple of tricks in her repertoire.  Doctor’s prescription of a good shag was right on the button.

The ending sees a new patient arrive, an unnamed writer who must be modelled on Thompson himself because the last line has Murphy gazing at him and declaring: ‘Just the man to write a book about this place.’  You’d think Murphy would want to keep the events of that particular day, which include a minor Hollywood star giving birth to an illegitimate baby, quiet, but here we have The Alcoholics, a book written by someone with first-hand experience of his subject matter whose lightweight handling fails to convey adequately the toll the disease takes.  Instead it is best read on its own terms as ‘50s pulp: thin on characterisation, with an antiquated, if liberal-leaning, approach to race and an implausible attitude towards sex and, unfortunately, alcoholism; despite all that a lot of fun.

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