The World of John McNulty
In the literature of alcohol there is no such thing as a desperate drunk, no real sadness save an acceptable melancholy, no delirium tremens, no deceit except the most innocent sort. There are only saints and angels sipping watered down gin. This is because so many writers have depicted the interior world of speakeasies and saloons as repositories for old salts and cranks and beggars, grubby philosopher poets, voluble and bilious raconteurs, flim-flam artists, the wizened, the naïve, and everyone in between who speak with coruscating brilliance on a range of themes and concerns. This portrait of the alcoholic milieu is largely a fiction, or it is at least an idealized version of life lived on a bar stool, but it is compelling nonetheless.
There are countless writers who’ve set this idealized world down on the page for readers looking for a vicarious low life thrill. One of the finest places to find that thrill is in John McNulty’s career-spanning anthology, The World of John McNulty (1957). McNulty was born in Lawrence Massachusetts in 1895, fought in the first world war and managed to survive it more or less intact, began his journalism career writing for wire services, wound up working for newspapers in Ohio for a time before winding his way to New York and The New Yorker in the late 1930s. McNulty is among the finest New Yorker—and perhaps, thinking more broadly, American—writers whom no one has ever heard of. His style does not possess the circuitous glory of A.J. Liebling, it does not convey the lovingly-written-if-somewhat-unhinged quality of St. Clair McKelway, nor does it rely on the acerbity or cynicism of Wolcott Gibbs or James Thurber (who contributed an affectionate appreciation to this collection). He doesn’t write with the plainspoken wisdom of E. B. White (it goes without saying that he doesn’t possess E.B.’s name recognition either). Rather, McNulty is something like a Homeric poet of the underclasses. His writing depicts the rangy language, the disagreements, the schemes, and the alcohol consumed by a revolving cast of hopeful men and women who populated the Bowery bars of Manhattan in the late 1930s and distilled it (no pun intended) into a series of humane vignettes that capture the lives of an ignored and forgotten section of society.
Don’t let the above description fool you into believing that reading McNulty is a slow going endeavor, or that you’ll have to wade through a good deal of moralizing and life lessons. You won’t. McNulty is funny. His titles alone are worth reading. They are often composed both with the efficient literalness of a Basho poem, which lets the reader know precisely what occurs in the essay that follows, and a slippery sort of irony that seems to both mock and cherish its subject. Some examples: “Two Bums Here Would Spend Freely Except for Poverty,” “Barkeep Won’t Let Anybody at All Shove This Handyman Around,” “Man Here Keeps Getting Arrested All the Time,” “Bartender Here Takes Dislike to ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas,’” and the real winner of the collection, “Atheist Hit By Truck.”
That humor finds its way into McNulty’s descriptions of the various joints and dives he finds himself writing about. The opening essay of the collection, “Some Nights When Nothing Happens Are the Best Nights in this Place,” is ostensibly a Christmas story about a “sour beer artist” hired to write yuletide greetings across the mirrors of saloons up and down the block, and it is, but only in part. Mostly McNulty’s story ranges across a multitude of themes: a cost-benefit analysis of the peaceable atmosphere of an empty pub as opposed to one that is packed with paying customers, the difficulties of learning the Chinese language, whether or not the sour beer artist, who is employed only once a year, ought to receive a holiday gratuity for his services, the dangers of riding a train on Christmas Eve with a drunk, and it ends with a fight. As meandering as it seems, the story unfolds with a natural sense of rhythm and progression, the events and conversations flow into one another, and the whole thing culminates in an eccentric and enjoyable portrait of one December night at the bar. Throughout, McNulty hangs back, letting his characters speak for themselves, with dialog that ought to make the reader hoot with laughter (it made me laugh, anyway). McNulty never censures, or comments. He trusts his readers enough to allow them to make their own conclusions about these folks.
McNulty’s instincts for receding into the background and not making himself the focal point of his essays is perhaps the reason he never became as well known as he should be. While McNulty’s colleagues at The New Yorker, especially Liebling, McKelway, and Gibbs, were fashioning a new method of journalism wherein they themselves became part of the story, there is a real newsman’s reticence at work in McNulty’s essays, one which places him at the service to the story rather than the other way around. As much as I enjoy Liebling, McKelway, and Gibbs, I can’t help but feel that McNulty’s is the right approach. His method of hanging back and capturing rather than analyzing or filtering the experience through a particular point of view allowed him to catch snatches of accidental brilliance and genuine beneficence from his subjects. An example: at the end of “Some Nights,” a rowdy patron, an enlistee in the Army, has been 86’d by the anonymous “boss” of the saloon for picking fights, but as he walks off into the December night, the boss is overcome with a feeling of goodwill toward the man as he says, “Now, isn’t that a terrible thing? There he is, going into the Army tomorrow, and I can see as plain as day what’s the matter with him. The poor man has nobody at all to say goodbye to.” It’s a heartbreaking bit of perception and thank goodness John McNulty was there to write it down.