Book review: The Wet and the Dry, by Lawrence Osborne

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 2:40pm

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey
by Lawrence Osborne
Crown Publishers
4 stars

Dwight Garner

There are three reasons that Lawrence Osborne's new book is instantly among the best nonfiction volumes about drinking that we have.

The first is that Osborne is a terrific writer, hardheaded and searching. The Wet and the Dry is a book in which cocktails are said to be "entered, like bodies of water or locales". Thus a vodka martini with its bobbing olive, imbibed while in Beirut, is to the author "salty like cold seawater at the bottom of an oyster" and "sinister and cool and satisfying".

The second reason this book is so good is that Osborne, who is English, is a world citizen, a committed travel writer as well as a novelist. Like a Google map, he brings wide-angle context with simple clicks.

The third and perhaps the most important argument for this book's excellence is that it's a political text as well as a sensual one. It arrives with a thesis - namely that a useful way of thinking about West and East, this supposed clash of civilisations, is to think of them as "Wet and Dry, Alcoholic and Prohibited".

They exist "side by side in a spirit of mutual incomprehension".

In Osborne's book we tail along as he travels through Oman, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, among other places, usually in search of a drink. We are never in doubt about which side of the wet-versus-dry divide Osborne intends to remain on.

But a real dialogue emerges in his telling. In the Indonesian city of Surakarta (also known as Solo), he asks a group of students if there is a restaurant where he might get a beer.

These young men don't get angry. To his surprise, they invite him to a cafe for a conversation. "Did I not see, they argued, the disasters that alcohol visited upon the Western world? It was a plague, sickness of the soul."

There is more than one dialogue like this in The Wet and the Dry, and Osborne generally gives as good as he gets. He asks: does drink separate us from ourselves or show us ourselves more clearly?

This book is stocked with comic moments and some fine one-off observations. "Vodka: it is like an enema for the soul," Osborne declares. He writes, "Beer and wine are for friends, but distillations are for the drinker who is alone."

Osborne is aware that it is possible to take drinking too far, and he has sympathy for those who have become its victims. And he does not hide his occasional alcoholic excess.

"The English are very indulgent to episodes of alcoholic insanity," he says. "They strike them as sympathetic, understandable, and a sign of being a real human being."

The New York Times