In 1905 a Swiss peasant named Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife in the head, then turned his rifle on his two daughters, before unsuccessfuly trying to blow his own brains out. Although leading up to the murders Lanfray had drank enough wine, cognac and other spirits to put a dinner party to sleep, everyone knew what had precipitated the killings: the two absinthes he had right before he went beserk. For years, authorities had warned that the drink was a sure ticket to homicidal madness, and the The Absinthe Murders, as they were called, led to the banning of the powerful herbal tonic that had become for the French something of a national pasttime.
Phil Baker's literate and cheerfully squalid account of how a delicate green spirit captured the imagination and brain cells of some of the most influential artists and writers of the last two centuries, as well as the morbid curiousity of the mass public, is a model of popular cultural history. It reads effortlessly, with a restrained erudition that is informative and exciting, even when depicting the downfall of ill-fated imbibers like Ernest Dowson, the morbidly melancholy poet of the 'yellow decade' of the 1890s. Dowson drained liver-shriveling amounts of the wormwood liqueur, and eventually succumbed to its abuse at the age of thirty-two. He wasn't the only genius to lose his sanity and health by overstaying his welcome in le verte heure, 'the green hour', as the 5 to 7 absinthe sipping time was once known in gay Paree. Alfred Jarry matched Dowson's capacity, slipping in quarts of the stuff in between quaffing a shelf-load of other spirits. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine had a taste for it too. As did Vincent Van Gogh, who apparently moved on to headier brews, like turpentine.
In some ways, Baker's book is a history of heavy drinking, with absinthe as the emerald queen of aperitifs. But she wasn't the only thing that was green. Some of her devotees eventually turned that shade too. Sadly, none seemed to have heeded the warning of Marie Corelli's hysterical 1890 epic Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, which penetrates zones of melodrama and sheer morbidity unmatched to this day. If a reader is unfamiliar with this doom-haunted text, Baker obliging includes a heavily edited excerpt for the unbelieving, along with snippets from other absinthe-minded works.
Baker's eye isn't solely fixed on the mythical 19th century, and his research trawls in absinthe-influenced writing from more recent years, like the Gothic revival in America's Pacific Northwest, and the dark, deleterious swamps of the deep south, embodied in Poppy Z. Brite. He traces the absinthe trail through film (Coppola's Dracula) music (Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson) and even politics, asking the throat-burning question: did Hillary Clinton swallow any of the absinthe shown sitting before her in a photograph taken in Prague? Until she runs for President, we'll probably never know.
Baker's chapters on the recent absinthe revival are clear indicators of how times have changed. A century ago, one had to find a sufficiently seedy bar to hoist a few with a fellow tubercular poet, or cross the Channel to ask Toulouse Lautrec for a nip from his absinthe laden sword-cane. Today, you can feed absinthe to your search engine--metaphorically--and come up with thousands of sites. But availability is bought at a price. Baker's account of how one cyber-absintheur spent a week in hospital, suffering convulsions and heart failure after knocking back some internet wormwood oil, is enough to make one think twice before dipping into the home brew.
And the cultural differences are great. In that misty Paris of Maupassant, one lingered calmly within le verte heure, blissfully detached from humanity's woes, eyeing its foibles with philosophical bemusment. The generation of absintheurs to emerge in the mid-90s, devotees of the Idler's 'Green Bohemia', saw in it the means of 'becoming intoxicated as easily and as quickly as possible.' Most of the stuff they were downing was the East European brand, rot gut to true conniseurs, but one suspects such nuances were lost on them.
Baker's chapter on the pharmacology of wormwood and the effects of thujone poisoning shows that the emphasis is on toxic indeed. That special 'kick' known to its initiates comes from wormwood's ability to bypass neuron inhibitors, allowing them to fire wildly and at random, giving absinthe a 'jolt' capacity similar to an unbelievable cocktail of the 1940s, the Mickey Slim, whose secret ingredient was DDT. Kids, don't try this at home. Instead get a vicarious thrill from reading this brilliant book.