Kamby Bolongo Mean River named one of 25 Important Books of the 2000s by HTML Giant

KBMR was named one of 25 Important Books of the decade by HTML Giant. And was a Page One selection of New & Noteworthy Books by Poets & Writers Magazine.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

No News Today - Guest Post - Scott Cheshire

"Water of Life”

Kingsley Amis once said “the really amazing achievement of the Western hero” had nothing to do with sharp shooting, or horse wrangling, but was “the way he could stride into a saloon, call for whiskey, knock it back neat and warm in one and not so much as blink.” I get the romantic impulse. For as long as I can remember being a drinker, or wanting to be a drinker, whiskey was the goal. It was tough, dark, and graduated to, a drink earned, not for everyone, and somehow both worldly and provincial, handed down to sons from fathers all over the globe. Never mind that my father never touched the stuff. Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” did in the Dollars Trilogy. And so did Gene Hackman’s “Popeye Doyle” in The French Connection II. “Scotch, right there, El Scotcho,” he says to a French barkeeper, while barely keeping his cool. Only just last year I tried to convince my wife that Popeye is a good strong name for a boy if we ever have children.

One Friday night, back when I was in my early twenties and working as a meat cutter in Duluth, Georgia, I had closed up shop, and shut the lights, when I heard a knock at the door. I looked up and saw one of our regulars, a man of about forty, which was just short of elderly to me at the time. I unlocked the door and told him we were closed. He asked if he could just get a few things. Please. I was newly moved out from my parents’ house (again), girlfriendless, and, frankly, I had little to do most evenings. I was about to say “sure,” when he said, “tell you what, I just bought some good Scotch, you ever have really good Scotch?” I was intrigued. I had not yet gotten past plastic bottle bourbon. He brought in a bottle of twenty-five-year-old Talisker. I grabbed two glasses from the sink. We upturned two empty five-gallon buckets, sat, and we sipped. It was like tasting the side of a hill: soil, grass, mineral. I’d never had anything like it in my life. He did not explain it to me. He did not condescend. He guessed the experience would speak for itself, and he was right. That was twenty years ago give or take.
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A few random personal memories of whiskey:

1 – My first truly soul-bruising hangover during which I realize too much Jim Beam has the power to remove every last hope from your heart.

2 – Proudly bearing into my mother’s kitchen my first purchase of Maker’s Mark, telling her why it’s “special,” and her telling me that sort of spirit isn’t allowed in her home.

3 – Hearing burly punk rock journeyman Mike Watt boom out “drink that bourbon right straight down” on his second solo record, Contemplating the Engine Room, even further instilling in me the silly conflation of bourbon and manhood. (Not Mr. Watt’s fault. All mine.)

4 – Stumbling onto John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager (not too long after my Talisker epiphany), in which former soldier-turned-hotel manager Jonathan Pine and various players involved in a clandestine sale of black market weapons all “sip” on Scotch, and “take pulls” of Scotch, and “need large” Scotches in the middle of the night, and in the middle of the day, which forever changes my perception of booze, mixing my dreams of being a writer with the drinking of Scotch. This is followed by about ten years of foolish and ill-informed booze snobbery.

5 – Meeting my lovely wife—girlfriend, then—and spending our first summer afternoons romantically lazing on her porch in Atlanta, amidst occasional gunfire and the maddening singsong bells of a neighborhood ice cream truck that secretly sold drugs, until one day the driver was arrested and the truck was left for pillaging, but nevertheless we were lazing and drinking mint juleps. This returns me to bourbon.

6 – At some point I start writing a novel, although I don’t think it’s a novel at the time, just a really long story, a story about what is to grow up in America, so deeply steeped in its complicated Christian religious legacy, and what it means to divorce yourself from that (even while that’s pretty much impossible to do), except after six years of hard work I do not know how to end the book. And then one day I happen to read about the early American use of Bellarmine jars (also called witch jars, or beardman jars) on the 18th century American frontier, occult black pottery filled aged urine (!), animal hair, pages of biblical scripture, and crosses, all used as a charm against bad luck—and used by Christians. And, lo, that urine was aged in barrels, just like my favorite Kentucky bourbon, and I knew somewhere in that strangely mixed image and idea lay the ending of my novel.
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Last year, I went to the doctor for my year forty physical, which thanks to recent studies no longer involves the probing one might fear (all that now happens at fifty). Liver: good. Heart: like a horse. Lungs: of a much younger man (I run and do not smoke). But my blood was in very bad shape, it turns out, my triglycerides through the roof, near the level of pancreatic shutdown. The doctor said it might be genetic, but he gave me a list: increase your exercise (no problem, there, recovering from a broken ankle, and so I’m anxious to get back to running); decrease your animal fat intake, and thus decrease your own fat (hopefully the running will help); drink red wine only; and no more whiskey. Please.

For the first time in my life I really did listen to my doctor because, well, I’m no longer feeling invincible (even as I write this, my ankle aches; the back does, too), and because I don’t romanticize, not anymore. All things must pass. Even me.

I should also say I’ve not given up whiskey for good. I have it once a week, usually on a Saturday night, at home, on the sofa, wife beside me, pug in lap, but this week I’ll likely have more. Because my book is now out in the world. And because there is something lovely and uplifting about having your brother, or a friend, or a peer pass you an unbidden celebratory tumbler. But next week I’ll return to my long daily walks, and whiskey-less nights with the wife. Although, maybe I’ll mix it up with a delicate whiskey cocktail, post-book birth week, in the new “now” of my “newish” life, and sit quietly with her, satisfied with a single and perfect pretty sazerac, at The Penrose Bar, my favorite local for an afternoon sip. Rye, neat, and a mere mist of absinthe, garnished with a bent lemon peel, as the barkeeper says in a shameless brogue that whiskey is Gaelic for “water of life,” and Kate and I talk yet again about having kids, or maybe not having kids, and do we stay in New York, or do we leave, and what to do with our next forty years.      

Scott Cheshire earned his MFA from Hunter College. He teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop, and his work has been published in Slice, AGNI, Guernica, and the Picador anthology The Book of Men. He is the author of High as the Horses' Bridles (Henry Holt), and lives in New York City.

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