Bright Lights Film Journal

“Drunk Literature”: On Malcolm Lowry, John Huston, and Under the Volcano

“Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.”

If all port would be claret if it could, every drunk would be Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of Malcolm Lowry’s “semi-autobiographical” novel — and John Huston’s film — Under the Volcano. As doomed and as ghastly as Firmin may seem, to anyone who has been what I would call a serious drinker, his story is rather the opposite of a cautionary tale.

First, the novel. I am not one of those who believe that it is a literary masterpiece. It is the best of a genre known as “drunk literature.” Lowry was an admirer of Joyce, and Under the Volcano was his own attempt at some of the cumulative verbal effects of Ulysses. His problem was that Geoffrey Firmin is in the terminal stages of drink and is so utterly unreliable that it is next to impossible to sort out the action of some scenes in the novel from the phantasmagoria of Firmin’s alcoholic delirium.

Clearly, Lowry suffered from delusions similar to Geoffrey’s (the “semi-autobiographical” tag is fitting), and his novel suffers from the superhuman task of grafting a Joycean piling layers of physical detail as a kind of rival universe of words onto the delirious ravings of a booze-sodden brain. The degree to which language can tolerate abstraction was Lowry’s biggest impediment. Then there is the quite natural reaction against the unpleasantness of being witness to the disintegration of a man’s mind (we are well beyond considerations for his poor body). All this militates against whatever literary value Lowry’s novel has, which is considerable. Ultimately, his contribution was to have strained to its very limits the tolerance of words for communicating alcohol’s assault on the cerebral cortex.

Some tantalizing rumors about possible film projects circulated over the years, one of them with Luis Buñuel directing and another with Sam Peckinpah. That John Huston finally got around to making Under the Volcano into a film was disappointing but not all that surprising, given his well-known love for Mexico and his love for drink. Huston’s love for literature must have been at least as great as his faith in the art of film adaptation. I cannot share his faith, even if a few of Huston’s own adaptations — B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood — were excellent. He came up woefully short on a few occasions, and it is no wonder that, while satisfactory as films, Moby Dick and The Dead failed to capture more than the shallow surface of the literary depths of Melville and Joyce. With Under the Volcano, Huston’s success derived from his salvaging the story of Geoffrey Firmin’s fall from Malcolm Lowry’s woozy prose.

In 1984, John Simon wrote: “Yet why does this man drink? The novel offers only a few feeble, disingenuous, and misleading hints, the foremost of which is: ‘Even almost bad poetry is better than life, the muddle of voices might have been saying, as, now, he drank half his drink.’ In other words, this is yet another of those tiresome works (e.g., Morgan!, King of Hearts, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in which craziness, drug addiction, or alcoholism is made out to be braver, truer, finer than sober, sane adherence to an allegedly corrupt world drained of all decency and nobility. Tendentious rubbish!”

That may indeed have been the case with the novel, but with Huston’s film Firmin is a terrifying sot, screaming at the sight of a cockroach and sneaking away into the garden to dig up hidden bottles. The greatest scene in the entire film, and one that could stand as its epitome, is where Yvonne arrives exhausted very early in the morning in the Mexican town only to find Geoffrey regaling a bartender in a cantina with his war story. Geoffrey turns and notices Yvonne standing there three times (or was it four?) before he realizes it is she. The rest of the film is a sad account of Firmin’s realization that he is undeserving of a second chance and that, despite her coming back to him, he has lost Yvonne forever. Firmin’s drunkenness forces at least this truth out of him.

What the film shows us is the near-tragic downfall of a once loving, generous human being, worthy of love and friendship. The only thing that keeps me from condemning Albert Finney’s performance as Geoffrey is the knowledge that all dipsomaniacs are not created equal. Certainly Huston, a lifelong drinker, knew this. There are some drunks who can appear reasonably sober, walking and speaking normally, and yet can have a blood-alcohol level of 25 percent or more. I have seen this myself. But there are others who react dramatically to even small doses of alcohol, staggering around and slurring their speech. Since Firmin, in the novel, undergoes gradations of intoxication and can function reasonably well in society (even when his BAC was probably through the roof), Albert Finney had to find a way of showing those gradations in his performance. That he manages all this is a stupendous achievement.

To drunks, the idea that Firmin would reform, go to AA, and abstain for the remainder of his life is unthinkable. It would mean the difference between tragedy and melodrama — between Aeschylus and As the World Turns. Firmin’s fate doesn’t open their eyes, it closes them in profound reassurance. They may not meet an end as magnificent as Firmin’s, but they can dream of one. While most people are happily ignorant of the meaning of the word “withdrawals,” drunks know that the only sure-fire way to avoid the terrors and the shakes is with another drink — and another and another.

Huston’s film makes it abundantly clear that Firmin is determinedly self-destructive. His love for a woman and a brother, neither of whom he can forgive for betraying him, doesn’t restrain him from punishing them by allowing them to watch him destroy himself. Perhaps it would outrage some of Lowry’s fans if I were to suggest that one of the weakest passages in the novel, and in the film, is the last, in which a white horse branded with the number seven appears outside the bar in which Geoffrey has been steadily drinking mezcal. Policemen grow suspicious of his interest in the horse and question him. When they search him, they find a packet of Yvonne’s letters and confiscate them. They accuse him of being a spy. When Geoffrey becomes angry and demands the return of the letters, one of the policemen shoots him. He falls in the mud and mutters, “Christ, this is a dingy way to die.” Huston, or his scenarist Guy Gallo, invents the death of Yvonne, trampled by the fleeing white horse. Hugh holds her in his arms. Then the camera rises above this scene of destruction to give us one last look at the volcano, Popocatepetl. It is the best that they could’ve made of Geoffrey’s last thoughts, as he lay dying.