Whisky & Culture

Too much monkey business

Jefferson Chase on how drink can bring the animal out
By Jefferson Chase
Among the more telling phenomena in the universe – and an argument for humorous, if not intelligent design – is that the more highly developed an organism’s brain, the greater the enthusiasm with which that creature will likely consume alcohol.A15 per cent solution of spirit suffices to kill almost all sorts of bacteria, while dogs enjoy beer and many monkeys, if the Discovery Channel is to be believed, unwind with cocktails after a hard day’s work.This brings us to an excellent short story by the American writer Thom Jones. Here’s how it starts: Dr. Koestler’s baboon, George Babbitt, liked to sit near the foot of the table when the physician took his evening meal and eat a paste the doctor had made consisting of ripe bananas and Canadian Mist whiskey. Koestler was careful to give him only a little, but one scorching afternoon when the generators were down and the air-conditioners out, Koestler and Babbitt sat under the gazebo out near the baobab tree that was the ersatz town square of the Global Aid Mission and got blasted.Now, there’s nothing nicer than a drink shared between buddies, but this particular one turns ugly when Babbitt swipes Koestler’s bottle and runs up a tree with it.Jones’ Way Down Deep in the Jungle, first published in the New Yorker in 1994, is a bit like MASH goes to Africa. Babbitt commits some very lewd acts before falling from his perch and waking the next morning with a raging hangover. Meanwhile, Koestler – a dissolute doctor doing humanitarian work in Zaire – has to deal with initiating some new volunteers into life in Africa, including their first visit to a leper colony.Koestler can only get through the situation by staying drunk, and Babbitt’s misbehaviour sparks a conversation at a session with the neophytes and another of the doctor’s buddies, a foul tempered pilot.One of the newbies, a wide-eyed young doctor from Hammond, Indiana, said, “I see that the whole fabric of the social structure breaks down when [monkeys] drink. It’s like some grotesque parody of humans, but with none of the subtleties – just the elementals.” “It doesn’t take Jane Goodall to see that,” said Hartmann.To Koestler’s eye, he appeared to be on the road to a mean, brooding drunk...Needless to say, the pilot and the Indiana boy aren’t on the road to hitting it off.On the contrary, they end up hitting one another, getting into a brawl after a few spliffs are introduced into the mix. In the end, it’s the humans who are more like a grotesque parody of monkeys than vice versa.And the baboon? He puts on an encore performance.Was it a minute or an hour later that Babbitt hopped on Hartmann’s empty chair and seemed to beseech the card players to deal him in? The men had drifted off into their separate thoughts. Babbitt grabbed the bottle of Canadian Mist from the card table and, brandishing sharp canine teeth that shone like ivory in the glow of the Coleman lanterns, caused both the young doctors to duck to the floor before he quickly sprang off into the black jungle. Even Koestler hit the deck, wrenching his knee. When he got up, he brushed himself off and said, “that settles it, I’m getting myself a dog.” Way Down in the Jungle is part of a collection of stories about Africa, which Jones, with characteristic black humour, entitled Cold Snap.With a resumé that includes stints as a boxer, an alcoholic, an American marine and a janitor, Jones is the sort of man’s man writer the United States seems to excel at producing. As he has said, “I was tired of reading about people in Nantucket in Volvos. I wanted to write about the nuthouses, the drunk, the desperate, the deranged.” Way Down in the Jungle is a gleeful bit of monkey business in an absurd universe that one suspects the author himself wouldn’t have any other way.