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The Drinker's Hour
"Welcome to The Drinker's Hour!"
That's how they introduced their 3:00 A.M. show, those doom jockeys.
Still, sometimes they didn't arrive exactly on time. Sometimes they wouldn't perch on the foot of his bed until 3:30 or so, and once they even showed at 4:15. But more often than not, they were ready to open their act within ten minutes, either way, of 3:00 A.M. The Drinker's Hour.
Winnie Farlowe's twin phantoms needed about three hours, after which he could once again fall unconscious until mid-morning, thereby screwing up his entire day, making himself feel so rotten he'd start drinking a bit earlier in the afternoon to "right" himself. After which the cycle would repeat.
He had dubbed them "Fear" and "Remorse," those winged apparitions, and imagined them as turkey buzzards, black ones with hooked bony beaks, and necks like Ronald Reagan. He'd learned at an A.A. meeting (which his lawyer had forced him to attend) that lots of drinkers had horrific night visitations not connected with d.t.'s. This, after the drinkers were jolted awake by a drop in blood sugar, or by withdrawal syndrome. The tormentors could take any gruesome form: bat, snake, rodent, spider, pit bull, lawyer. Often they appeared as ex-wives or husbands, parents, children living or dead —dead ones made memorable visits—or as Memories of Youth. And, of course, as Lost Promise. Winnie's night sweats, all that dog-paddling in the flotsam and jetsam of life, were partly brought about by his fortieth birthday. The Death of Youth.
After the wake-up call Winnie's buzzards took turns crawling all over his besotted steaming flesh—cackling, snuffling, growling. There was no point fighting them and lights didn't scare them. It was usually the bigger one, Remorse, that did more damage. Winnie would close his eyes and feel the stinking smothering wings pinning him, while the bloody beak dipped into his palpitating heart.
Once he'd made the mistake of describing his 3:00 A.M. horrors to the various saloon psychologists at Spoon's Landing, his favorite waterfront gin mill. He got what he deserved.
"Winnie," a beached sea poet clucked, "you're just another sad clown playing a nightly gig under the boozer's big top. Under a circus canopy of putrid buzzard wings."
Spoon himself was more prosaic and even less sympathetic. "You gotta learn to ignore whiskey goblins," the saloonkeeper told Winnie. "Things that go bump in the night? That's just the other drunk that lives upstairs."
But this night Fear was the most ravenous. Smaller but relentless, the feathered demon went straight for Winnie's guts, tearing at viscera, rooting for the swollen slab (It must be swollen by now!) of heaving quivering liver. Remorse gripped him with iron talons but Fear ate him alive.
Winnie's awful memories of the Yuletide evening were vague. He'd been drinking more than usual at the time, predictable during the holiday season (again according to the A.A. speaker). It was a week when Remorse was supposedly the hungriest. Winnie's sharpest memories of that terrible evening were all sensuous, beginning with the smell of hot rum, a Christmas season specialty at Spoon's Landing.
"You're listing to starboard," one of the hull scrapers from Cap'n Cook's Boatyard had warned while Winnie sat at the bar topping off his giant thermos with Spoon's hot rum. "Maybe you shouldn't go to work tonight."
Winnie could not remember riding his beach bike from Spoon's Landing to the ferry. Nor had he any memory whatsoever of taking over the boat from a blond, permanently tanned summertime ferry pilot who was home for the Christmas holidays from Harvard where he pursued an M.B.A. that would, the kid claimed, be followed by a Beemer, a condo not farther than three hundred feet from the water, and a membership in the yacht club. Winnie could not remotely remember the first several ferry crossings that he apparently navigated without a hitch. He could vaguely remember a group of youngsters singing Christmas carols on Balboa Island.
People on Orange County's Gold Coast loved the Balboa Island ferry. The one-way, two-minute, one-thousand-foot crossing from Balboa Island to the Balboa peninsula and back was still only 20 cents for pedestrians and 55 cents for a car and driver. Residents of The Golden Orange say that the toot of the ferry whistles is as reassuring as high tide, and for tourists it's the hottest ticket in town. There's the panorama from the deck: the old Balboa Pavilion, the sleek Newport Center skyline on the distant hills, the channels teeming with nine thousand boats, the waterfront homes with multiple boat slips and just enough land to make you stretch a bit when you lean toward your neighbor to borrow a jar of yuppie mustard.
The Newport Harbor Christmas Boat Parade was probably the most festive event of the year on the Orange County Gold Coast, Newport Bay being one of the largest residential harbors in the world, and probably the wealthiest in median income. All three ferryboats were in service during the holidays, and on every crossing carried three cars and as many as fifty passengers. Many of the ferry pilots were young men who'd gotten their Coast Guard licenses after a college boating program. For them it was a temporary or part-time job, and a better way to meet girls than being a lifeguard.
Winnie Farlowe was not a typical ferry pilot, but he had been taken on temporarily upon the recommendation of his former boss, a Newport Beach police captain, who, thinking Winnie needed a break, had encouraged him to get his license to operate a passenger vessel.
The police department's reconstruction of that evening—written by a merciless female cop—alleged that Winnie Farlowe had, in the middle of a ferry crossing, emerged from the little pilothouse clad in deck shoes, blue jeans, and a Hobie Cat sweatshirt and yelled at the astonished passengers as the ferry immediately veered to starboard: "You people are just as good as all the rich assholes in this harbor! You're gonna be in the boat parade!"
Then, according to witnesses, the pilot reentered the pilothouse, turned hard to port, and powered into the queue of two hundred boats motoring down the channel, two hundred floating Christmas parties ablaze with twinkling colored lights, awash with festive decorations, and brimming with good cheer.
Winnie somehow remembered gazing at the Balboa Pavilion that night. He always found the old Victorian edifice nostalgic and lovely, its observation platform and cupola studded with permanent white lights. He may have been looking aft toward the pavilion when he rammed a fifty-eight-foot motor yacht, sending its giant necklace of five hundred Christmas lights whiplashing from the fly bridge and crashing to the deck in a series of pops that reminded him of an AR-15 in the boonies of Nam.
Then, again according to witnesses, there was lots of screaming and yelling when the ferry passengers panicked. And dozens of parade boats—sloops, ketches, motor yachts, runabouts, boats of every stripe—began to scatter, their skippers grabbing radio dials to summon the Harbor Patrol.
Within three minutes of the first ramming, Winnie Farlowe had donned a Santa hat he'd borrowed from a wooden mermaid at Spoon's Landing and screamed, "You're all my prisoners!"
It was then that a beach volleyball star aboard the ferry—a guy much bigger and fifteen years younger than Winnie—decided to impress a volley dolly cuddled next to him in his mom's Mercedes.
He leaped from the Mercedes onto the deck, yelling, "Okay, you drunk! Outta that cabin!"
Which caused Winnie to reply, "I was gonna shoot myself. But now I think I'll shoot you, you yuppie son of a bitch."
The reference to a gun caused police divers to drag the channel for two days before they finally concluded that there was not, and never had been, a firearm in Winnie Farlowe's possession.
Nevertheless, the volleyballer retreated to his mom's Mercedes, where the volley dolly screamed, "Chill out, dude! Chill out!" to Winnie Farlowe.
Her boyfriend leaped from the car once again after Winnie reemerged from the pilothouse babbling something about his ex-wife and threatening to shoot all adult female passengers starting with the male volleyballer, whom Winnie called "the biggest pussy on this boat."
Which caused the volleyballer to abandon the blonde, the Benz and the ferry itself. He dove over the rail into the frigid, silt-clouded water of Newport Bay and swam the first thirty yards underwater to elude nonexistent gunfire before he was hauled out by two teens in a Boston Whaler.
The pirated ferry had reached the tip of Bayshores, only sixty feet from the former home of John Wayne (on offer for a quick sale at a reduced price of $6,500,000), when the renegade ferry was overtaken by two boats, filled with gun-toting sheriff's deputies and backed by a Newport Beach Police Department chopper hovering overhead and lighting everything in the channel with blinding spotlights, including Winnie Farlowe who was urging terrified tourists to sing "Jingle Bells."
When Winnie was released on bail the following day, and visited his lawyer, Chip Simon—who'd handled Winnie's recent divorce—the former ferry pilot claimed to remember clearly a Grand Banks 42, lit by green and red laser lights, towing a helium-filled, thirty-foot Dopey the dwarf in a Santa beard. Except that while Winnie was plumbing his spotty memory, he was informed by his lawyer that the law firm's own Bertram 46 was decorated with the parade's biggest Christmas figure, which was not Dopey but Rudolph the Reindeer. And that there was no Dopey in that parade, except for his client. The suggestion was made then and there to plea nolo contendere and pray for probation.
Three months later, Chip Simon hadn't changed his mind. And he'd gotten all the continuances he could. He sat quietly while Winnie sweated his way through a reading of the lurid police report.
Finally the lawyer asked, "Did you ever read Moby Dick, Winnie?"
"No, Chip, but I'm sure you have," Winnie replied.
"There was the great whale, powering along like a floating island," explained the lawyer, "carrying all sorts of land life with him. Just like you taking all those people and cars right into the boat parade. People screaming and boats crashing out of your way. Moby Dick revisited!"
"Now I know why I hired you, Chip," said Winnie. "You've got such a heartwarming, bright and optimistic way about you. You light up a room. Like a frigging electric chair."
"Could've been worse," Chip Simon said. "You could've sunk a couple of boats out there instead of only banging into a few. You could've drowned a few ..."
"Please, Chip, I got a headache already."
"It's the story of your ..."
"Night. It's one goddamn night in my life! What about the fifteen years I gave to police work? What about the three years in the marines? I'm a Nam vet, for chrissake!" Then Winnie remembered something he'd heard from the beached poet at Spoon's Landing. Winnie said, "I take a few drinks so the turbulent waters of life can glass out and let me trim the sails and cruise for a few hours."
"The judge will be made aware of all that, Winnie," the lawyer said, writing: Life's turbulent waters. Trim the sails.
All the time he was talking to Winnie, Chip Simon was toying with a crystal paperweight that was the latest hot toy among Gold Coast executives. It was a Testarossa, a car coveted by Newport Beach yuppies. Nobody ever called it a Ferrari. If you didn't know what a Testarossa was ...
"I think it's partly a midlife crisis," Winnie said. "I turned forty a couple weeks ago. I got a midlife crisis so real you could put a coat a paint on it. Wait'll it happens to you in ten years."
"Eleven. Or maybe it was the divorce. I always tried to do the decent thing with that man-eater."
"How well I remember her during the hearing for spousal support," Chip Simon said cheerfully.
"I could never decide which one a her twins was more horrible," Winnie said. "They were both clones of their mother. When I met her second ex-husband one time I asked him which twin was meaner and he said to me, 'Win, it's a jump ball.' Still I adopted those monsters! The judge should be told what a decent guy I really am. Legally adopting her brats!"
"Some people might say that such a rash decision is proof of your ..."
"I'm not an alcoholic! I jist shouldn't drink rum!"
"... drinking problem, I was going to say."
"It was the Christmas season and I couldn't stop thinking about how she savaged me with the child support for my adopted kids. How she even took away my sailboat. I earned that sailboat with my insurance payoff when I got hurt."
"Yes, it's very sad," the lawyer agreed, running over a bent paper clip, a make-believe pedestrian, with the Testarossa.
"I'd still be a cop today," Winnie said, "if I hadn't hurt my back chasing a boat burglar all over that yacht club. Getting knocked down the companionway of some millionaire's seventy-five-footer that never leaves the dock except to get hauled out for inspection every year or so. Jist a place for him and his cronies and bimbos to get drunk on. Might as well be set in concrete right there in front a the club for all the good it does. Kind of guys that put shoe trees in their Top-Siders. And here I am, unemployed with a bad back and that barracuda chewing up my balls and pirating my sailboat and leaving me beached and broke. The only person in town that watches a TV without a remote control. I shoulda bought a copy of Soldier of Fortune and hired me somebody like Ollie North to snuff that man-eater. So why don't you tell that to the judge, Chip?"
"I'll tell him everything positive that's relevant, Winnie," Chip Simon said, smoothing back his fresh haircut, causing Winnie to observe that ever since Michael Douglas made that Wall Street movie, every yuppie in The Golden Orange had his hair Dippity-do'ed. And Chip wore silk suspenders decorated with little water-skiers.
"And I'll certainly point out that a pensioned, fifteen-year veteran of the Newport Beach Police Department is not just some ordinary unemployed beach rat," Chip added.
"They're treating this like piracy, for chrissake! It was nothing more than joyriding, is all!"
"Except that the joyriding took place not in a car but on a ferryboat, Winnie. Not on a public highway, but in the bay of Newport. In the midst of the Christmas boat parade when the harbor was alive with boats and twinkling lights. And the smell of hot rum filled the air and filled the defendant's belly. That's what my learned opponent, the assistant district attorney, will say."
"So nobody's gonna care that I actually did my best to continue on active police duty with a herniated disk I got when a boatyard burglar coldcocked me with a length of anchor chain knocking me down into the galley of a booze cruiser they shoulda hauled out for bottom paint and it wouldn't of been there in the first place!"
Writing once again, Chip said, "Judge Singleton is impressed with a good clean job history, Winnie. Give me yours before the police work."
"Lifeguard, U.S. marine, street cop. That's it," said Winnie. "Three jobs in my whole life. None of which am I now young enough or fit enough to perform."
"The judge will be impressed, I hope, by the fact that you're voluntarily attending A.A. meetings," the lawyer said.
"Because a your insistence. I'm not one a them."
"Tell me, how many meetings have you attended since the ferryboat incident?"
"Four, I think," Winnie lied. "Altogether. More or less."
Chip Simon wrote: Has attended at least four meetings a week for past three months. At same time he looks for work. Then the lawyer wrote in caps: BAD BACK PREVENTS EMPLOYMENT.
"Before Tammy's ambulance-chasing shyster crucified me with the spousal support and shanghaied my sailboat I had hopes of hiring on as a fishing boat skipper," Winnie reminded him. "Put that down."
"I suggest we forget that divorce," Chip said.
"Maybe if she hadn't been born in the Debbie Reynolds era she wouldn't be such a pitiless crocodile. I never met a broad yet named Tammy wasn't a nut cracker."
"It would help if you could get a job, any job."
"We're going to court next Monday, Chip."
"Any job or even a prospect of a job. I can't paint a complete portrait of Winston Farlowe without the materials. And I can't introduce irrelevant information. By the way, did you know that lots of American baby boomers like you are named Winston? For Churchill, of course."
"What the hell's relevant about that, Chip?"
"Just an interesting aside."
"Is it relevant that I thought Tammy and me were happily married when in fact she was in the process of silkworming our Loveboat cruise and leaving me dead in the water?"
The lawyer didn't answer but wrote: Ship of Fools.
"Is it relevant that she dumped me for the owner of a dental clinic who started out exploring her root canal and just kept moving south?"
Excerpted from The Golden Orange by Joseph Wambaugh. Copyright © 1937 CHAPPELL & CO.. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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Posted July 28, 2014
Joe Wambaugh is best known for his brutally honest early works centered on the LAPD -- The Blue Knight, The New Centurions and some of his other 1970s novels. This isn't one of those. More's the pity.
Winston Farlowe, the protagonist, is drinking his disability pension after being cut loose from the Newport Beach PD after a line-of-service injury. Tess Binder, a Newport Beach serial trophy wife, tracks him down at the dive bar he haunts and winds him up in a relationship based equally on alcohol and sex, then tells him someone's trying to kill her. Naturally, he tries to fix the problem, and complications ensue.
The author is skilled at creating characters that feel all-too-human and act in ways you'd expect beings such as they would act. The dialog generally feels authentic except in one aspect. He captures the vibe of the wealthiest enclave in Orange County back at the end of the era when semi-normal people could still afford to live there (precariously). The crime-related plot is suitably devious though not particularly original (it's a variation on Double Indemnity).
However, the overall work is lazy and sloppy. The crime story is nowhere near the main plot; the first whisper of it doesn't appear until page 160 or so of the paperback. Vast numbers of pages are taken up by incidentals or repetition. This book could easily be a hundred pages shorter and would benefit greatly from the trim. The dialog fail happens repeatedly in Win's favorite bar; it descends into banter that's far too sharp and quick for real drunks to even attempt, much less pull off.
The two main characters embody the largest failings. The main plot involves watching Win repeatedly drink to vast excess, both alone and in the company of fellow hopeless alcoholics. The boozing is nonstop to the point of absurdity. An example: on the night of Win's first date with Tess, he downs upwards of twenty double vodkas as well as various other drinks (I finally lost track), but somehow he not only doesn't end up comatose or dead, he can still perform sexually. Win's created this problem for himself and is in deep denial about it, even though it's patently obvious to every other character around him. As a result, it's extremely difficult to muster any sympathy for Win or care much about his ultimate fate.
Similarly, Tess is a preening, entitled gold-digger who believes "injustice" is what happens when the third wealthy ex-husband refuses to breach the pre-nup and gives her the old Mercedes as part of the settlement. Her peers are no better. In fact, nearly all the female characters in this novel are either shrill harpies feeding on the entrails of their blameless mates, or ruthless predators stalking the rich men of Newport Beach, who are helpless prisoners of the whims of their own penises. It's hard to feel anything but contempt or disgust for Tess, no matter how much of a male-fantasy sex machine the author sets her up to be.
So with no viable main plot or relatable main characters, this is an exercise in the skilled creation of milieu (the only reason this got that second star). Whether that's worth 350 pages of your time is something you'll have to decide for yourself.
If you haven't encountered Wambaugh before, go back to his early works and see him at his peak. If you've read all the rest of his works and somehow skipped The Golden Orange, don't feel as though you've missed much. Move along, there's nothing much to see here.
Posted February 2, 2013
No text was provided for this review.