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January 22, 1996

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Zip,

Please excuse the long delay. Several months ago you asked what I thought about the renowned Canadian author, Robertson Davies's most recent book, A Cunning Man. I had read it only recently, and I still don't know what I think about it. While I was deliberating, Davies died at 83. I shall miss him, and soon will resurrect him by re-reading his books.

He was at his best writing about the theatre in Canada, politics, especially campus politics, and all aspects of academia.

His mind was like a genial blend of Marquez, Jung, several poets of the 20th Century -- a generous, humorous, forgiving person who thought of himself as some sort of therapist.

It is therapeutic to read his books. A lot about friendship, not a great deal about love and marriage -- I think of him as a happy bachelor.

His last book was enjoyable but a little bland. It seemed to be an autobiographical note paying tribute to two of his oldest and best friends. Nothing new. However, he is worth reading again. He is something like Saul Bellow without tears and angst. Even more like Isaac Singer, though not so serious and cosmic.

By the way, Zip, give us a few of your thoughts about Davies. It is astonishing how little we, the reading public, attend to books by Canadians and Australians. Even now my rickety mental apparatus is straining to recall the name and works of an Australian novelist, whose work is deep and comical as life itself.

You remember of course how Australia (like the state of Georgia) had an inauspicious start as a deportee convict colony. Turned out rather well, don't you think? Well, the subject arises again because my readers want to know how I feel about the much-publicized "war on drugs." In brief I think it is a stupid, wasteful re-run of the great days of Prohibition and its war on alcohol! Last week on TV there was a bubble-headed show glorifying J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and a rogue's gallery of the celebrated thugs the Feebies put away. I felt myself siding more and more with the moonshiners and bootleggers, though a bit less warmly with the machine gunners. But think of John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd and other stars! Then the most dreaded hood of all, Al Capone, whose ignominious end was to be captured by the IRS!

Anyway, this TV peep show of dead gangsters maintained that once J. Edgar had iced down enough (nearly all) of the outstanding hoods then the liquor war, and traffic, had disappeared. Well, it didn't happen that way: When Prohibition was repealed, that is when the bootlegging, moonshining, and gang wars subsided to nothing.

Of course they left behind them the national alcohol habit, but this had always been there, only a lot worse. See the Virginia Law Review around 1965, an article entitled "The Dark Ages of American Drinking." These dark times were in the decade just before the Civil War. Everyone was conscientiously drunk, dawn to midnight every day they could afford to be. The conductors on the trolley cars, the milkman, the street cleaners; school teachers in class, judges in court. And so on including surgeons drunk in the operating theater and preachers pixilated in the pulpit. The W.C.T.V. had the answer: The source of the trouble was booze, and the cure was total abstinence, I mean everybody to stop drinking.

To their credit these good ladies did not shoot each other or people who persisted in drinking alcohol. Temperance groups all over America raised money and bought a boulder to be part of the Washington Monument. These had the name of the club incised on the stone so those who could climb that high could read it. These hopeful rocks have held up well, and now the same fervor inspires the 12-Steppers all over the country.

What is missing, what leaves the historian dissatisfied as he pursues these melancholy chronicles, is some explanation, a doctrine, even, to help us understand why we perversely insist on poisoning our nervous systems with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, crack, heroin, and anything else that promises to bring on an altered state of consciousness. Mushrooms, for instance, and peyote button, are deeply entwined with religion, visions and worship of tribal gods. Even tobacco, till the English got into it and began carrying it on their persons, was used mainly for ceremonial purposes.

The evidence hints that all along we were (and are) looking for a better world, into which a drug may give transcendence. That is, we don't especially like the world we have made for ourselves and, "The quickest way out of London is a bottle of gin!"

This brings us back to the British, ever the pathfinders: Why don't we follow their Australians and New Zealand example, gather up all our makers, dealers, dispensers and gunnies for the drug trade, and settle them in cozily in the Aleutian Islands? Barring that, legalize everything!

Let me know what y'all think,

P.S. This column needs letters!

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