Book Review: The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey

About a chapter into Lawrence Osborne’s latest book, The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey, I realized I needed three things: a map, a dictionary, and a stiff drink.

Osborne is well traveled and this is intimately apparent as he weaves his travel diary from bar to bar in England, throughout the Middle East and into Asia.  Mind you, this is no travel guide. It’s an examination of many things personal and public along Osborne’s trip in and out of sober moments in search of another drink.

Neither is it some boring tale of a drunk’s imagination. While Osborne is an unapologetic drinker – and we are witness to many moments of excess – his sharp observations of changing cultures are cast out frequently amongst his colorful descriptions of the landscape and the characters in it.

We meet Osborne in Milan, searching out a gin and tonic under the unbearable heat of a summer day. From there we’re quickly taken back to his search for a drink in the religious city of Solo (Surakarta), a dry city where “the fiery religious schools preach jihad against Indonesia’s tourist sector.”    And thus begins Osborne’s examination of the clash between wet and dry cultures, while wondering where he might get a drink in a land where success might get one killed.

In Lebanon, where drinking is legal, though forbidden for Muslims, Osborne paints these tensions with the backdrop of the Bristol bar:

The Bristol’s bar is half hidden in that anxious lobby where men in dubious suits eat honeyed cakes all day long. It is an exercise in discretion. The businessmen who sit here late at night do so with tact, because not all of them are Christians. . . . . I sit at the end of the bar, and my second vodka martini comes down to me on its paper serviette, with the olive bobbing on the side. . . Out in the street, beyond the revolving glass doors, a soldier stands with an automatic weapon staring at nothing.  It is truly time for a distillate.  Beer and wine are for friends, but distillations are for the drinker who is alone.  I sit here watching the clock, and the barman watches me in turn, and it seems we are both waiting for something to happen. 

Those tensions extend to a much simpler level, the difference between drinker and non-drinker – “The drinker resents the teetotaler’s rigidity, primness, and limited ability to let go of her relentless mental clarity. Her clarity – despite its beauties – is irritatingly pedestrian in the end.  Each finds the other a bore.”

Osborne is oddly funny (“I’m a visiting alcoholic” he announced in Islamabad) and frequently melancholic (“A distilled rather than a fermented drink can be an experience of being ‘out of time,’ and yet it does not obscure the past. A fermentation excites and fills one with optimisim and lust; a distillation makes one morose, skeptical, and withdrawn.”).  We meet Osborne’s mother in one of his book’s many memoir-esque passages (“She had a brusque contempt for sentimentality, like all deeply sentimental people.”), as quickly as we’re introduced to worldly drinks (Yeni Raki, derived from beets, which can be drunk neat or with chilled water added.).  

For those of us living in a country founded upon constitutionally derived principles of separation of church and state, his book is also frightening.   Osborne explores the conversion of formerly wet countries to oppressively dry regimes of religious fundamentalism.  We meet, for example, the only winemakers in Egypt who grow their own grapes, two Christian, Lebanese men who must tell their mostly Muslim fieldworkers the grapes are destined for the table, not the bottle. They are not optimistic about their chances of continuing to operate a winery under an increasingly religious-dominated  government. It’s one of many eyeopening experiences Osborne entwines in his pages.

Ultimately, he reaches no particular conclusion other than the certainty that there will be another drink, likely at 6:10 p.m., Osborn’s favorite time to begin each session.

I received this book from the publisher, Crown Publishers, in the hopes (but not the guarantee) that I would read it and review it. I came away happy for the experience. While at times I found my lack of a map, dictionary and stiff drink to be a disadvantage, through his search for the next drink Osborne explores issues craft beer drinkers like me rarely give a second thought while sitting in the comfy confines of the U.S.  Give it a read.