Hungover, the new book by Canadian journalist Shaugnessy Bishop-Stall, is not a science book strictly speaking. But there’s something to be said for folk-science, especially when it comes to finding the best antidote to one of the oldest ailments ever to plague Homo sapiens: the hangover.
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall serves up part travelogue and part confession here. At the outset, he pays some tribute to the hard-drinking English novelist and critic Kingsley Amis, who was no stranger to the hangover.
Indeed, Hungover is a tribute to working through what Amis himself once described as the two components of the dreaded ‘morning after’: the physical side (for which there are varied remedies about which he wrote in detail).
And then the metaphysical side, which, as Bishop-Stall demonstrates in eleven chapters of often disarmingly personal prose, can be a lot harder to shake.
This includes what Amis called, “…the psychological, moral, emotional, spiritual aspects: all the vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization.”
I’m not sure by the end of this engaging book, that Bishop-Stall would entirely agree. Amis died in 1995. And as Christopher Hitchens wrote in his introduction to Amis’s book Every Day Drinking when it was issued posthumously in 2008, the grand British man of letters may have been a tad too sanguine. The world now knows, Hitchens wrote, “what Kingsley’s innumerable friends had come to realize, which is that the booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health. But not everybody can take their own advice, or not forever, and the cheerful and wise counsel offered here will not lead you, dear reader, far astray.”
Hitchens himself succumbed before his own time, so these words are more than a little ironic in hindsight. Bishop-Stall writes all too acutely with the awareness of such a fate for himself, and this lends an urgency to his search for an antidote—even as the sense grows for him that his life may be the gloomier for it.
As it turns out, there is indeed a surefire antidote to the hangover—the reader gets it all laid out in detail in the second to last chapter. Without spoiling it, it turns out to be a combination of very accessible vitamins and minerals, which you can acquire from the nearest health food store.
And while friends are eager to endorse his discovery, the author himself is not satisfied until he runs it by some specialists, including Dr. Mignonne Mary of the Remedy Room in New Orleans.
And yet, in the end, all of it seems like a double-edged sword, as Bishop-Stall concludes.
“Having discovered the antidote, I took it and took it and took it and, in so doing, caught a long, unsteady glimpse of what consuming immense amounts of alcohol with no obvious physical repercussions can quickly become.”
That is: an inescapable confrontation with those metaphysical components of the hangover. Except they never go away.
“I went through an intense and dramatic descent—from sunward arc to rocky crash, unbound potential to slobbering beast. And I learned that if you remove the most aggressive and acutely physical symptoms of hangover, but leave the more insidious ones—exhaustion, lethargy, anxiety, hollowness, depression—it’s like slipping into an alternate universe, one full of fears and problems you never knew existed, your life and liver constrained by scars and bars.”
And as he closes the book, even as he works to improve his recipe to cure the hangover, Bishop-Stall admits, “I’m not sure I’m working for the greater good.”
But not to end on a dispiriting note, there is some comfort in the company of strangers who have shared his rocky road. One of whom, an antiquarian bookstore owner in Vancouver who loves having hangovers, turns out to be one of the most engaging personalities Bishop-Stall meets in all of his travels.
Available from Random House. 400 pages. Recommended.