The full facts about debauched lives do not make happy reading, but authors from Robert Louis Stevenson to Hunter S Thompson offer thrilling reading without concealing the cost
My book choices come with two warnings. First, sense: As the old Batman TV shows used to say, don’t try this at home. Not if you want to keep your internal organs intact – and hang on to your friends. Second, sensibility: Some of these books contain what are now unacceptable attitudes to race, while misogyny goes with the territory. Despite the best efforts of cartoon characters such as Tank Girl and some ladies from Viz, it’s generally men who tick the required hellraising boxes: a crazed overindulgence in drink and drugs; an addiction to danger, often involving high-powered vehicles and tall drainpipes; brawling, sprawling and smashing up other people’s property; throwing TV sets into hotel swimming pools and racing motorbikes around hotel corridors; the shabby mistreatment of WAGs and female co-stars, fans and groupies. Hellraising is very much a male pursuit.
Books on hellraisers often focus on “creatives” such as Robert Sellers’ Hollywood Hellraisers: the Life and inebriated times of [actors] Burton, Harris, Reed and O’Toole. Rock stars: Stephen Davies’ Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin. Writers: John Malcolm Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America or Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun, about a Lost Generation avatar of Dorian Gray.
In my own book several writers raised hell while they were undergraduates at the Hypocrites Club in Oxford, 1921-24. And then put away childish things and settled down to a life of sobriety. Up to a point.
I do find factual accounts such as these dispiriting to read at any length (with the exception of Olivia Laing’s) because one is always conscious of the sometimes fatal waste of life and dissolution of talent, and the very high collateral damage. My choices are therefore mostly fictional; they all, I think, provide some sort of context for their characters’ boorish behaviour.
1. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Published in 1824, this is a ferocious, mordantly funny onslaught on extremist Scots Presbyterianism. The sanctimonious Robert Wringhim’s clergyman stepfather is tipped off by the Almighty that the lad is predestined to be one of the Elect. Because the “justified” must by definition have led lives unblemished by sin, then by Calvinist logic Robert, no matter what he does, cannot commit a sin. Now accompanied by a mysterious companion, who spurs him on, he decides to put this happy facility to use – resulting in gargantuan feats of debauchery, alongside the “cutting off” of religious rivals.
2. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Heavy on the Manichean good v evil and mind-body dualism, Stevenson’s famous tale from 1886 is a metaphor for addiction, as the drugs Jekyll uses to get straight stop working, and the devilish Id, Hyde, starts to take over. As with Dorian Gray, four years later, exactly what he gets up to in his mysterious adventures in Soho and the East End is, apart from violence, not detailed. Leaving us to fill in this tabula rasa by dreaming up guilty pleasures of our own. An indulgence not afforded by more explicit contemporary hellraising accounts.
3. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
An extraordinary, strange and ingenious novel. Set in New York in the summer of 1959, it’s a cross between Dashiell Hammett and John Franklin Bardin, with a twist of Aleister Crowley thrown in. The story gets weirder and weirder. And then weirder still. It doesn’t quite add up – but it’s a hell of a ride. And a hymn to the city.
4. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
We meet “affluent worker” Arthur Seaton as he necks 13 pints of beer before spewing up over a couple of other pub-goers. Arthur is well-paid for his factory piece work: but it drains his soul. And so on a Saturday night “the effect of a week’s monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill”. On Monday, start again. Arthur has a laddish charm, but he is selfish and yobbish and fond of other men’s wives. He hates unions as much as he does his bosses. A Loadsamoney Thatcherite in the making.
5. The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing
“There have been many books and articles that revel in describing exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour of alcoholic writers can be.” This isn’t one of them. Laing’s book – which doubles as an atmospheric road trip – is a sober and psychologically penetrating account of six hard-drinking American writers: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Williams, Berryman, Cheever and Carver. There is mention of feckless and boorish hellraising, but this is essentially a harrowing account of a Faustian pact – like that between heroin and bebop. Booze stimulates your writing then rewires your central nervous system and impairs, or destroys, your ability to write at all.
6. Junky by William Lee
Published in 1953, subtitled Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, this is the first book written by William Burroughs, using his mother’s maiden name. It’s a dispassionate ledger of his own life at this time, an addict who deals heroin and steals to make enough money to feed his habit. At one point, trying to get clean, he nearly dies of alcoholism. The life of the addict is not just grey and monotonous – waiting for the man, from fix to fix – it’s perilous. Set up by narcs, dime-dropped by dealers and other junkies, always in danger of an overdose. And the horrors of cold turkey – “like ants were crawling under the skin” – when you end up in jail.
7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
The two gonzo antiheroes start as they mean to go on, loading the trunk of their convertible with enough drugs and drink to knock out the US navy. It’s a grotesque fantasy, a savage, rage-fuelled, at times extremely funny 100 mph rollercoaster “Journey into the dark heart of the American dream”. And a lament for the failure of the consciousness-expanding hippie dream. What Ornette Coleman is to Dizzy Gillespie, this book is to Burroughs and the Beats.
8. Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans
À rebours in the original French, this is “the strangest book” that poisoned Dorian Gray. (It was brought up at Wilde’s trial.) The wealthy aristocrat des Esseintes was once, he tells us, a “jaded sophisticate”; “he had kept mistresses already famed for their depravity”. Disappointed in the hope that “the fascinating filthiness of the poor would stimulate his flagging senses”, he has turned into a neurasthenic, would-be solipsist, constructing a world of self-indulgent aesthetic excess. Exhibit One: a jewel-encrusted tortoise. Exhibit Two: if you’re eating you won’t want to know.
9. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Most of the main characters – the Skagboys – use heroin. One who doesn’t stands out: the violent, vainglorious alcoholic Franco Begbie. Set in Edinburgh at the fag end of the Thatcher era, the anomie and despair of the central characters, though never preached, is clear. In a key scene Begbie and protagonist Renton encounter an “auld drunkard” in a now defunct railway station. “What yis up tae lads? Trainspottin, eh?” “Ah realised thit the auld wino wis Begbie’s faither.”
10. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
This is a fascinating account of a fascinating 18th-century hellraiser. Blessed and cursed with personal charisma in spades, Georgiana was a patron and practitioner of the arts and sciences. Her main interest was politics; she was a brilliant impresario and spinner. And yet … Foreman’s book is strongly feminist; on every other page is evidence of the ludicrous power imbalance between men and women. But not in dancing, drinking and gambling all night, followed by an opiate chaser, where Georgiana held her own among the Foxite Whig caucus. Her besetting anxiety was to produce a male heir. But miscarriages – and daughters – followed. For Georgiana, hellraising was a performance – it came to be expected of her. In her case the showing off was spurred on by deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and a desperate need for approbation. An important insight into the “hellraising” game.
Hellfire: Evelyn Waugh and the Hypocrites Club by David Fleming is published by The History Press. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.