DIPSOMANIACS are either born that way, or they just end up that way. Vastly distinguished in the sphere of dipsomania, Malcolm Lowry, it seems, actually planned to be that way, from childhood. The gift was not inherited. In an early short story the narrator
records his (Methodist) father's disapproval of a local lawyer, who lacked 'self-discipline'. 'He did not know,' Lowry wrote, 'that secretly I had decided that I would be a drunkard when I grew up.' While most schoolboys dreamt of becoming engine-drivers or
cattle-punchers, little Malcolm dreamt of becoming an alcoholic. And the dream came true. Excluding a few dry-outs, in hospitals and prisons, and the very occasional self-imposed prohibition, Malcolm Lowry was shitfaced for 35 years.
How much do we need to know about a writer, personally? The answer is that it doesn't matter. Nothing or everything is equally satisfactory. Who cares, in the end? As Northrop Frye has said, the only evidence we have of Shakespeare's existence, apart from
the poems and plays, is the portrait of a man who was clearly an idiot. Biography is there for the curious; and curiosity gives out where boredom begins. Certainly we think that scholarly investigation has gone too far when it starts offering us monographs
on, say, the laundry lists of Shackerley Marmion or the tram tickets of Lascelles Abercrombie. But the author of Under the Volcano is a special case. His addiction becomes our addiction. Anyway, The Bar Tabs of Malcolm Lowry would tell most of the story, and
it would be no shorter than Gordon Bowker's 600 pages. The biography is thorough, and thoroughly engaged; it is both gripped and gripping. It won't have to be done again.
To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.
He was of course a prodigious self-mythologiser, or a braggart and a liar, if you prefer. A playground scar on his knee he passed off as a bullet-wound sustained in crossfire during the Chinese Civil War. Jailed for one of his solo riots in Mexico, he listed
his torments in a letter to a friend: 'They tried to castrate me too, one fine night, unsuccessfully I regret (sometimes) to report.'
That hardy 'one fine night' acts as a kind of semaphore of mendacity. In 1939 he used the outbreak of war, and his own entirely hollow vow of immediate enlistment, in a number of self-interested ways, including this bold strophe in a letter to his sweetheart:
'If you truly love me as I love you greet me as one come back from a long journey & who must go again, as I must'. That last heroic cadence bespeaks both congenital insincerity and a delighted self-loathing. Lowry was a world-class liar. Even his commas and
colons were lies.
Like Isherwood and others, Lowry was the kind of Englishman who had to get out of England, and sooner rather than later. His parents were ordinary products of their time and place but it was their very ovinity that haunted him. When imagination comes up
against no-imagination, then no-imagination wins every time. So you have to get out. At 17 he sailed east to China, as a dockhand; a year later he sailed west to America, as a passenger, on a literary pilgrimage. North and south, though, turned out to be the
significant points on his personal compass. The south meant Mexico, the scene of his most shameful rampages. The north st