‘The Wet and the Dry’ looks at drinking from geographic, political viewpoints

New York TimesAugust 3, 2013 

"THE WET AND THE DRY: A Drinker's Journey" by Lawrence Osborne.

  • Nonfiction THE WET AND THE DRY: A Drinker’s Journey Lawrence Osborne Crown Publishers 226 pages

There are three reasons that Lawrence Osborne’s new book, “The Wet and the Dry,” is instantly among the best nonfiction volumes about drinking that we have, and why, if you have a bar, it should be tucked into its corner, near the bitters.

The first reason is that Osborne is a terrific writer, hardheaded and searching, and he’s getting better as he gets older. His novel from last year, “The Forgiven,” was a bite-size piece of poison candy – a persuasively creepy mix of Ian McEwan and Paul Bowles.

“The Wet and the Dry” is a book in which cocktails are said to be “entered, like bodies of water or locales.” Thus a vodka martini with its bobbing olive, imbibed while in Beirut, is to the author “salty like cold seawater at the bottom of an oyster” and “sinister and cool and satisfying.” The author gets bonus points for not being a snob about vodka martinis.

The second reason this book is so good is that Osborne, who is English, is a world citizen, a committed travel writer as well as a novelist. Like a latter-day Evelyn Waugh, he can size up a locale almost at a glance. In the ancient Roman city of Baalbek, in Lebanon, he declares it “the kind of place where you might be kidnapped for an hour or two just to satisfy someone’s curiosity.”

The third and perhaps the most important argument for this book’s excellence within its genre is that it’s a political text as well as a sensual one. It arrives with a thesis, namely that a useful way of thinking about East and West, this supposed clash of civilizations, is to think of them as “alcoholic” and “prohibited.” They exist “side by side in a spirit of mutual incomprehension.”

In Osborne’s book we tail along behind him as he travels through Oman, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, among other places, usually in search of a drink – his cocktail hour begins at precisely 6:10 p.m. – and sometimes putting himself in considerable danger while seeking one out.

“Drink becomes the wedge of freedom” in lands “otherwise haunted by the religious men in black,” he writes. He asks, in many different ways: Does drink separate us from ourselves or show us ourselves more clearly?

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