Walker Percy was a fascinating dude. The author of (in my opinion) the best New Orleans novel, 1961's The Moviegoer, and a key champion of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Percy was both an existentialist and a self-proclaimed bad Catholic. On top of all that, he was a drinking man, and his short essay "Bourbon, Neat" has become a sort of touchtone text for religious people trying to make sense of their own drinking.
Maybe because of that, "Bourbon, Neat" is one of the most misread essays in the American canon. I guess because he called himself a Catholic, people figure that "Bourbon, Neat" is Percy's attempt to find virtue in bourbon, to show how drinking can be safe, healthy, and ordered.
Take Michael Barruzini's "Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost," published at First Things. Now, I don't want to be too hard on this essay, because it's a good piece of writing, and it calls attention to Percy's excellent piece of writing.
But damn if Barruzini doesn't miss Percy's point.
In Baruzzini’s analysis, bourbon is one way of answering the existential question of how to be in the world. “No, not in the sense of drowning sorrows in alcoholic stupor,” Baruzzini writes, “but in recognizing that it is in concrete things and acts that we are able to be in the world.” Man drinks bourbon, Baruzzini argues, like an eagle flies or like a mole digs, “because that is what you are, what you are good at, what you love.”
And he concludes: “[B]ourbon is for Percy a way to be for a moment in the evening. Why might one take an evening cocktail? Baser reasons are: an addiction to alcohol, or the desire to appear sophisticated. Better reasons, according to Percy, are the aesthetic experience of the drink itself—the appearance, the aroma, the taste, the cheering effect of (moderate) ethanol on the brain. Another reason is that a drink incarnates the evening; it marks the shift from the active workday to a reflective time at home. One simply must choose a way to be at a five o’clock on a Wednesday evening. Instead of surrendering to TV, Percy recommended making a proper southern julep.”
We can put aside the objection that Percy doesn’t recommend mint juleps (the essay is called “Bourbon, Neat,” remember), and we can ignore the fact that Percy advocates the opposite of savoring the “appearance, the aroma, the taste” of bourbon. Those are confusing aspects of Percy’s essay—he does give a recipe for mint juleps, and he does have a beautiful line about the “hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime.”
The bigger problem comes in with Baruzzini’s insertion of the word “moderate” into that last paragraph.
Where does he get the idea that Percy's essay is about moderation? The drinkers in "Bourbon, Neat" are desperate, awkward, and unhappy: they drink illegally, they drink irresponsibly, they drink whatever they can get their hands on, from Coke bottles and hip flasks and home-rigged stills. He writes of a bunch of teenaged boys so scared of girls that they hide in the bathroom during a school dance, swilling whiskey and wincing at its taste. He writes about turning to bourbon when he doesn't know what to say on a date. And he writes of a julep party on Derby Day where “men fall face-down unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahlil Gibran and the limberlost.”
But to hear Baruzzini tell it, Percy is advocating the stolid, responsible pleasures of a cocktail made with good whiskey, taken from an evening chair, maybe before going out into the backyard to toss the ball around with the kids and, then, once they’re bathed and off to sleep, making stolid, responsible love to the wife.
Percy’s ideal of whiskey drinking is far, far from that. It’s:
“William Faulkner, having finished Absalom, Absalom!, drained, written out, pissed-off, feeling himself over the edge and out of it, nowhere, but he goes somewhere, his favorite hunting place in the Delta wilderness of the Big Sunflower River and, still feeling bad with his hunting cronies and maybe even a little phony, which he was, what with him trying to pretend that he was one of them, a farmer, hunkered down in the cold and rain after the hunt, after honorable passing up the does and seeing no bucks, shivering and snot-nosed, takes out a flat pint of any Bourbon at all and flatfoots about a third of it. He shivers again but not from the cold.”
So "Bourbon, Neat" isn't about drinking to be yourself--it's about drinking to escape yourself.
Drinking to escape? Isn't that bad? Isn't escape precisely the wrong reason to drink?
Yeah, it can be, but Percy hates what he calls the "everydayness" of modern life. And so he celebrates drinking, even bad drinking with all of its risks, because those risks allow bourbon to lift us out of that everydayness. Now, Barruzini is right that there's a religious aspect to all this. But he's wrong to look for it in the concept of vocation (doing what God calls you to do) rather than in the concept of grace. Booze is grace, Percy is telling us. Cheers!
But what does that mean?
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes grace as “an entry into some different kind of identity.” Specifically, he says that “grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends, in large part, on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.” Grace means recognizing yourself as an occasion of joy for God.
Percy’s essay is an elaboration of the famous quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that alcohol is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. But since that joy and love don’t come from our own merits, they can’t be rationally explained. So grace is inherently wrapped up in mystery; in this respect, it differs from vocation, which involves doing what is self-evidently good for us. Drinking whiskey, then, is man’s (or woman’s) way of getting at the unfathomable, of launching himself into the wilderness of mystery. Even when he does it from his armchair.
In other words: We don’t drink bourbon because it’s good for us. We drink it because it’s not. And somehow that’s good.
That “somehow” is grace.