Under the Volcano
Malcolm Lowry was born in 1909 in New Brighton to a British cotton broker. He received the standard British upper class education and began drinking at school at the age of 15. He saw the world working as a deckhand on a tramp steamer then enrolled in Cambridge and took up writing. He traveled the extensively spending time in America, Canada, Spain, Germany, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Lowry spent most of his life writing and drinking and died, impoverished, in 1957 of barbiturate poisoning and severe alcohol consumption. The Modern Library picked Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano as number 11 on their list of the great novels of the 20th century and the work is widely accepted as a masterpiece. This is a book for reading on a dark dreary day when you don't want that mood to lift. Lowry began writing the novel in the 30's in Cuernavaca, Mexico arriving there on November 2, the Day of the Dead. He drank heavily, his wife left him for another man and his drinking eventually led to his expulsion from Mexico. He finished the book in the mid 40's in Vancouver, Canada while drinking heavily. Under the Volcano Lowery slashes open a vein and bleeds all over the page while telling the story of Geoffrey Firman, an ex-British Consul, living in the town of Quauhnahauc, Mexico and it takes place on the Day of the Dead. It is a story of the struggle between action and inaction as Geoffrey drinks his life down the toilet. On the Day of the Dead, Geoffrey's ex-wive Yvonne - a woman wasting her life in pursuit of the wrong man - arrives in Quauhnahauc with ambivalent hopes of reviving their relationship and somehow resurrecting Geoffrey from the depths of alcohol. Shortly after her arrival, Geoffrey's younger, dashing half brother Hugh, who has had an affair with Yvonne, arrives torn with feelings for Yvonne and loyalty to his brother. Jacques Laruelle, a childhood friend of Geoffrey's, has also had an affair with Yvonne. The book has 12 chapters long. Chapter One occurs in 1938 on the Day of the Dead with Jacques Laruelle and Dr. Virgil reminiscing about last year's Day of the Dead. The next 11 chapters cover one hour on the Day of the Dead (November 2) 1937. Through the course of the day, Geoffrey talks of great changes and then downs another drink. He extends his ability to function inebriated with glasses of strychnine - rat poison - also used as a performance enhancer during the early 20th century. As he faces the choice between action and inaction, Geoffrey turns his back on potential opportunity and stumbles towards the next cantina. Each hour, Lowry peels off another layer of skin as Geoffrey swirls down the drain to his inevitable conclusion. The book captures the Mexico of the 1930's and we watch the detritus of the Mexican Revolution - a mere decade in the past - float by and feel growing discomfort with the rise of fascism in Spain and Germany as the dark clouds of the war to come gather on the horizon. This is definitely not an upbeat read, but it is a masterpiece and it lays out the mind of an alcoholic and helps us understand the demons and the decline.