‘Tis the season of eating and eating and eating and drinking. And drinking. Whether you drink to make the extended family table seem humorous rather than grim, or because “holidays” is a better excuse than “Tuesday,” or because you love the sounds of the drinks—Beaujolais, Tobermory, Stolichnaya, Boone’s Farm—you’re probably about to embark (or have already embarked) on a late-year bender.
What does this have to do with writing? (Need I respond, really?) Well, I recently wrote a triad of essays on Scott Russell Sanders’s “Under the Influence,” which is about Sanders’s alcoholic father. It’s a wide-ranging and powerful essay that charts a life of drink, in a way that is neither judgmental nor sentimental. Tough to do. I have an alcoholic father, so I know this essay was deliberately assigned by DG for some diabolical ulterior motive (and I thank him…I think).
The third of my essays is about lists. For it, I narrowed my beer-blinders from my more typical whole-essay examinations of structure and techniques and instead took apart just one sentence. Yup, one sentence—but it’s a doozy. (I think I’ll memorize this and say it as next year’s Thanksgiving grace.)
Consider a few of our synonyms for drunk: tipsy, tight, pickled, soused, and plowed; stoned and stewed, lubricated and inebriated, juiced and sluiced; three sheets to the wind, in your cups, out of your mind, under the table, lit up, tanked up, wiped out; besotted, blotto, bombed, and buzzed; plastered, polluted, putrified; loaded or looped, boozy, woozy, fuddled, or smashed; crocked and shit-faced, corked and pissed, snockered and sloshed.
This list introduces the second section of Sanders’s essay, which is a shorter section dealing with the way alcoholism is humorously viewed in popular culture. Its basic structure is that of a “list of lists.” Individual words or phrases, separated by commas, constitute sub-lists separated from each other by semi-colons: “besotted, blotto, bombed, and buzzed; plastered polluted, putrified”. Within that structure, each sub-list features a natural correlation between its elements. These correlations include alliteration (in the examples just noted, above); parts of speech, like the past participles in “stoned and stewed, lubricated and inebriated, juiced and sluiced” and the prepositional phrases in “three sheets to the wind, in your cups, out of your mind, under the table, lit up, tanked up, wiped out”; or linguistic similarity.
This last type of correlation best describes the final sub-list (“crocked and shit-faced, corked and pissed, snockered and sloshed). All of these words take a long time to say, despite their low number of syllables. In English, single syllable words can vary in length (compare the time it takes to say “church” versus “cat”). All of the words in that last sub-list are one- or two-syllable words, but are laborious: “crocked” and “sloshed” have just one syllable each, but are very difficult to say quickly; “pissed” forces a long pause on the “s” sound; and “shit-faced” has so many different types of sounds (linguistically, two different plosives and three different fricatives) it causes the tongue fits. Sanders is clever to conclude the list with this sub-list, since it is the most difficult to say and almost makes the reader feel a little drunk.
Sanders also creates variety in the list by varying connecting words, rhythm, and phonetics considerably. The first sub-list is a straight-forward series: “tipsy, tight, pickled, soused, and plowed”. This gives the reader something familiar to begin—it is the most sober of the sub-lists—before the language becomes more and more complex.
The second sub-list features three paired words: “stoned and stewed, lubricated and inebriated, juiced and sluiced”. Each pair has commonalities (the initial “st” in the first, the “-ated” suffix in the second, and rhyme in the third), and the whole sub-list is still regular in construction but is a bit less expected than the first.
The third sub-list (of seven, so it’s about in the middle) is the longest, and it features exclusively prepositional phrases. These phrases start long and shorten as the sub-list unrolls, beginning with the five-syllable “three sheets to the wind” and concluding with the two-syllable “wiped out”. There is no “and” anywhere in this sub-list, unlike the first two. The absence of this expected feature of a list creates variety in the language, but is also effective here because there are already so many small words (“to,” “the,” “of,” “up,” etc.) in this sub-list.
Then comes two alliterated sub-lists: “besotted, blotto, bombed, and buzzed” and “plastered, polluted, putrified”. In the first of these two, the “and” returns, making this another very conventional series. In addition, the “initial-B” sub-list is in the classic iambic tetrameter: be-SOTT-ed, BLOT-to, BOMBED, and BUZZED. The “and” facilitates this metric and is therefore necessary here. The “initial-P” sub-list, however, lacks the “and” and has an erratic meter: PLAS-tered, pol-LUT-ed, PU-tri-fied. Though these two alliterated sub-lists are adjacent and conspicuous because of that alliteration, there are poetically very different. The first lulls the reader into a familiar sing-song pattern, and the second destroys that pattern (symbolic of alcoholism, perhaps, with its stretches of calm punctuated with sudden unexpected explosions, to use Sanders’s war metaphor). The “initial-P” sub-list’s deliberately erratic rhythm also introduces the drunken roller coaster ride to the end of the full list—a ride through two sub-lists that are highly irregular.
The sixth sub-list includes no “and,” instead substituting “or”: “loaded or looped, boozy, woozy, fuddled, or smashed”. This sub-list has it all: a rhyme, alliteration, a sub-sub-list in the very beginning (linked surprisingly not by “and”, but by “or”), and an ending that can only be described as onomatopoetic—the already substantial sound-length of “smashed” being drawn out by its position at the end and sounding a lot like actual breaking glass. “Smashed” is also the perfect word here, because its “bright vowel” (linguistically a “front unrounded vowel”) contrasts with every other vowel in the sub-list, which are all “back vowels,” having a much darker sound. Reading this sub-list aloud, it is easy to envision a drunkard groaning and stumbling across the room, then meeting up with the glass china cabinet.
The list closes with the slurred-speech sub-list described above: “crocked and shit-faced; corked and pissed; snockered and sloshed”. Here Sanders revisits the three-pairs technique he used in the second sub-list. Though the words themselves are difficult to say quickly, the pairings exacerbate this further. Each pair features a word with prominent plosives (“crocked,” “corked,” and “snockered”) followed by a word with prominent fricatives (“shit-faced,” “pissed,” and “sloshed”). This back-and-forth between “hard” sounds and “soft” sounds is both fun and tricky. The last word of the list is the most languid in the whole paragraph, the “aw” sound of the “o” and the long “sh” combining to draw out every last bit of breath before the abrupt, concluding “t” sound.