Dusting Off: Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

By Willa A. Cmiel

This Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm Lowry. His novel Under the Volcano, which pops up on all kinds of read-before-you-die lists, was the first book in years that I just couldn’t get through. In desperate rationalization, I labeled it “man lit” and argued that the only people I ever knew who loooved the book (and people really love it) were middle-aged men. And while the book is certainly Joyce-ean in its kaleidoscopic structure and obsessive use of literary/mythological allusions and symbols – it’s sprawling and “dangerous” and effortfully literary – it’s also distractingly solipsistic (as was Lowry himself) and saturated with alcohol, which is really only dangerous to the protagonist and whomever else is partaking.

I first became interested in Lowry when I read the the New Yorker’s Life and Letters feature “Day of the Dead” in 2007. In retrospect I’m not sure what it was about that piece that enticed me to give Under the Volcano a try, because while many great writers are selfish, self-destructive and irrational, Lowry was completely defined by these traits. Why I decided I could legitimize my inability to finish it by labeling it “man lit” is more of a mysetery. The novel does, however make it onto Esquire’s Greatest Books Every Man Should Read, a list which includes Grapes of Wrath “because it’s all about the titty.” For Volcano, it’s because there is “a terrifying riderless horse, mescaline, and this line: ‘Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.'”

Yeah, that’s why I didn’t like it.