The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure
By Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
399 pp. Penguin Books. Paper, $17.
A thought experiment: If hangovers didn’t exist, what percentage of your life would you spend drunk? It’s unexpectedly hard to predict. Part of the thrill of getting wasted, after all, is knowing that you’re sacrificing your future self for your present self’s fun. That’s the point of bad behavior.
The Canadian writer and actor Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall is a fine person to write a book about hangovers, not only because he’s a tenacious researcher but also because he’s willing to get thoroughly torn up on a consistent basis in colorful circumstances. He gorges on single-malt Scotch in Las Vegas, swallows a dozen pints of ale in a series of English pubs, binges on tequila and collapses beside a cactus near the Mexican border, wears lederhosen to a German beer festival and so forth. Reading his chronicle, “Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure,” has an effect not unlike recovering from food poisoning or slipping into a warm house on a frigid night. You turn the pages thinking, “Thank God I don’t feel like that right now.” Or maybe, “Thank God I’m not this guy.”
According to Bishop-Stall, a hangover is composed of two forces combining to form a third force of great evil, like warm water and a storm cluster smashing together into a hurricane. One of the forces is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which is the reason the bathroom lines in bars are so long and why you wake up from a binge gasping for water. The second force is fatigue. Although alcohol sedates you, it won’t permit access to the deepest levels of sleep, which is why you can pass out for hours and still wake up feeling (and physiologically being) exhausted.
Identifying the cause of a problem, of course, is not the same as having an antidote. Bishop-Stall combs through reports and records, past and present, for purported hangover cures, of which there are many: stuff your socks with green hemlock and walk around on the leaves all day, eat orange Popsicles, drink prune juice, take kudzu-root pills, have someone bury you in hay, drink charcoal dissolved in warm milk, swallow frankincense capsules. He cheerfully tests some of the more exotic remedies, like floating in a curative Austrian lake while listening to pan pipes from underwater speakers, being palpated by a strong-handed masseuse, boiling in a caldron of herbs and hooking himself up to an IV drip of electrolytes, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, vitamins and anti-nausea drugs. None of these counteract the misery of overindulgence.
They do, however, yield insight when undertaken in bulk. All hangover cures belong to one of three categories. Some are palliative, like anti-nausea drugs. Others are distractive, like being palpated. Still others concentrate discomfort into a violent but circumscribed period of time, like being boiled in a caldron, as a kind of psychological purgative. The medical term for hangover is veisalgia, which comes from a Norwegian word meaning “uneasiness after debauchery.” Veisalgia hints at the scrim of despair and self-loathing that is a hangover’s most elusive element, and the one that resists every dispelling mechanism we can throw at it.
You could profitably crop-dust a cocktail party with the factoids in “Hungover.” Consider a drinking ritual, popular in the Netherlands, that involves slurping ice-cold grain alcohol from a tulip-shaped glass, followed by a beer chaser. The name of this ritual, kopstooje, translates as “little head-butt.” The Spanish word for hangover, cruda, means “rawness.” The German word, Kater, means “tomcat,” presumably as in being mauled by one. Bishop-Stall even unearths an emergency-room case report about a patient who suffered from paralysis of the arm after getting drunk and passing out with it draped awkwardly over a suitcase. This victim of “alcohol-induced crush syndrome” was saved by emergency surgery.
Bishop-Stall’s archival rooting-around is more interesting than his memoir through-line. Although he’s a lovable narrator, he’s also a pretty normal one, and his activities — planning a bachelor party, eating cheese, cat-sitting for his parents — don’t always rise to the level of book material. But that’s O.K. You expect a book about alcohol to ramble a little, and his commitment to the subject more than compensates. Many writers would have given up the project after urinating in a public fountain or wandering alone into a dark German forest or vomiting into a sombrero. Bishop-Stall does not. Two-thirds in, he admits that he is “pretty much drunk every night now,” which suggests that the book was written in exactly the twilight zone it aims to clarify.
The thing about hangover cures is that most people are simultaneously convinced they have a decent remedy (greasy breakfast sandwich, aspirin before bed) and committed to the notion that a true cure doesn’t exist, because otherwise we’d all know about it. But Bishop-Stall, over the course of his journey, develops a remedy that seems to work, and he provides a precise recipe for it. When correctly assembled and dosed at the proper time (between last drink and passing out), he claims that his mixture of B vitamins, milk thistle, N-acetylcysteine and frankincense wards off a hangover’s nastier symptoms. He doesn’t guarantee its safety and apparently has no plans to bottle and sell it, but it’s there for the testing. Booze it up, readers.
Molly Young is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the co-author, with Joana Avillez, of “D-C-T.”