Hans Fallada is a gem I discovered early last year thanks to this article in The New York Times. A German, writing during the Great Depression and under Nazi rule, he achieved some celebrity but ultimately lived a tragic life. His books were written in short bursts of creativity (usually over only several weeks), often when he was confined to one institution or another. And yet he managed to produce a diverse body of work, some of which is slowly being translated into English. His book Every Man Dies Alone is one of the greatest books I've read in years.
The Drinker is billed as semi-autobiographical. ("It's a biography of you," my wife once chortled.) Fallada wastes no time in beginning to tell the story of his protagonist's (a businessman named Erwin Sommer) descent - seemingly apropos of nothing - into alcoholism and ruin. I say apropos of nothing although it quickly becomes obvious that Sommer has long suffered from paranoia and an inferiority complex; alcohol is just the catalyst for destructive tendencies that had long been bottled up. Though told in the first person, one soon comes to realize that Sommer is somewhat unreliable, or at least completely self-serving, as a narrator.
Seen through the distorted lens of Sommer's perspective, the story unfolds in a way that forces the reader to struggle with ambiguity. His paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Nothing is clearly black and white. Sommer is not an evil man, but he loses all sense when drunk. His wife, who I found myself wanting to despise for accusing him of a crime, abandoning him to the world of the institution, and ultimately leaving him, is probably largely a good and competent woman (more competent than her husband, as he recognizes) driven to do what she did.
The book lacks a narrative arc - "narrative plunge" would be more like it. The institutions where Sommer winds up are horrible and useless (with class distinctions between Sommer and the other inmates an undercurrent throughout) but because we are seeing them from his viewpoint the reader has to wonder if they are quite as horrible and useless as they seem.
Only one thing is for sure: alcohol is absolute poison for Sommer, a fact he never quite comes to grips with.
The Drinker reads quickly (I read it in less than two days while on vacation) and if its unrelenting plunge into despair seems too much at first, almost a caricature, eventually the reader becomes invested in the story anyway. I recommend this book, though with a caveat: while it's a good book, if you're going to pick up one Fallada novel, pick up Every Man Dies Alone instead.