The Alcoholics


By Jim Thompson

Foreword by Doug Dorst

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Dr. Peter S. Murphy needs fifteen thousand dollars by the end of the day, or the city of Los Angeles can say goodbye to the El Healtho clinic. A recovery center for the most severe cases of alcoholism in the state — even if no one ever does quite seem to get dry there — El Healtho has been the bane of Dr. Murphy’s existence ever since he started running it. But now that its doors are about to close forever, Dr. Murphy finds he’ll do anything to keep it open.

Up to and including admitting Humphrey Van Twyne III, a patient with an extremely violent past whose wealthy family has the means to keep El Healtho open for business. Sure, the man isn’t exactly an alcoholic. And yes, what he really needs is to be under the care of the surgeons who performed the lobotomy that’s rendered Van Twyne all but a vegetable. But the money’s good — until the rag-tag group of ne’er-do-wells at El Healtho begin to wreak havoc with Dr. Murphy’s plans, and suddenly no one day has ever seemed so long.

A literary precursor to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Alcoholics is Thompson like you’ve never read him before, a pitch-black, mad-cap portrait of deviant behavior that is at once darkly comic, humane and harrowing.


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If you're holding The Alcoholics in your hand, you've almost certainly read another Jim Thompson book—one of the well-known, widely celebrated novels such as The Grifters, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, or After Dark, My Sweet—and you're well acquainted with his merry work with psychopathic first-person narrators, his ability to shock and delight the reader simultaneously, his willingness to spelunk into the darkest recesses of the damaged soul. But his lesser-known books are a blast, too; he was a writer who worked with ferocity and velocity, and the results—somehow both raw and recursive—could be spectacular collisions of inspiration and desperation.

The Alcoholics was written in 1953, in the middle of a burst of absurd productivity. In nineteen months, Thompson pounded out twelve new books, including many of the novels his fans revere most. According to Robert Polito, author of the definitive Thompson biography, Savage Art, Thompson told a friend that this new novel—about a failing alcoholic sanitarium (with the probably not-focus-group-tested name of El Healtho)—would be a huge seller. With forty million alcoholics in the world, he reasoned, surely he could count on forty million buyers. Things didn't go that way, of course, but the book that emerged is a singular work in the writer's oeuvre.

The setup of The Alcoholics is remarkably simple and economical, and it can teach any aspiring writer how to hit the ground running in a novel. Characterization? Thompson nails the protagonist in the very first paragraph:

His real name was Pasteur Semelweiss Murphy; so naturally he called himself Dr. Peter S. Murphy: rather, his patients and colleagues knew him by that name. In his own mind, he called himself names as hideous and hopeless as the agony of which they were born. You!—he would snarl savagely. You goofy-looking beanpole! You lanky, long-drawn son-of-a-bitch! You scrawny red-haired imbecile!

See what Thompson did there, in about sixty words? Our protagonist: a doctor with a divided self—public versus private—beset with a furious case of self-loathing. We know what he looks like, what he feels, and what the narrator feels about him. We are off and running.

The plot is as simple as a plot can be. Addled Dr. Murphy has to get hold of $15,000 today, or his clinic will close and he'll be ruined. And the only way he can get $15,000 is by doing something that fundamentally violates his professional and personal ethics. So, what's he going to choose?

Now cue the supporting characters, the drunks and misfits of El Healtho—patients and staff ostensibly under Dr. Murphy's supervision. Let the farce commence.

Because that's what The Alcoholics is, really: a caustic, scathing, and profane farce. And this, of course, is not what modern readers have been taught to expect of Thompson, master of murder most foul and comedy most black. Psychos and blood and cons and lies and hurt. Characters so corrupt and compromised that square dealings are rare and hope illusory. Let's not even bother talking about conventionally happy endings.

There are drops of this stiff concoction in The Alcoholics, to be sure. A sadistic, sexually deviant nurse. Patients with unspeakable pasts. Our doctor, riven by warring impulses. And as the final day of El Healtho wears on—with patients, employees, and events spinning further out of his control—we find Dr. Murphy less and less able to suppress his innate sense that many solutions are to be found in violent retribution. But when the novel mixes all of these Thompsonian devices (tropes?), what emerges is largely comic, not tragic. This ain't Macbeth. It's Twelfth Night (minus the cross-dressing and, I suppose, the love).

There is the tragedy of alcoholism itself, of course, about which Thompson speaks eloquently, famously having torn himself together and apart with drink and having made more than one visit to institutions like El Healtho.

In the words of biographer Polito, "Thompson reproduces the detachment of chronic alcoholics who abstractly discuss their craving as if it were happening to someone else." And, in the words of Thompson, via Dr. Murphy: "The alcoholic's depressed mood pulls him two ways. While it insists that great deeds must be done by way of proving himself, it insidiously resists his doing them. It tells him simultaneously that he must—and can't. That he is certain to fail—but must succeed."

For all the clear-eyed discussion about alcoholism, the alcoholic's particular evasions, manipulations, and self-destructive acts—and those of sundry other compulsions, too—there's also the aroma of fantasy wish fulfillment in the air. Deep-seated psychological issues can be cured with a stern talking-to or a sturdy rogering of dubious consensuality. And the writer's own cameo appearance, itself played for comedy, is infected by the drunk's romanticized sense of his own irredeemable suffering. These are reminders, I think, that Thompson was showing us a map of the damaged psyche, not offering us (or his characters, or himself) any routes to cross it. It's a strange book, a literary hall of mirrors in which he used any damned tone, genre, trope, mood, tic, offense, indecency, and joke he wanted, all in the service of the fiction writer's greatest hope: to build something that will entertain, resonate, and endure.

—Doug Dorst


His real name was Pasteur Semelweiss Murphy; so naturally he called himself Dr. Peter S. Murphy: rather, his patients and colleagues knew him by that name. In his own mind, he called himself names as hideous and hopeless as the agony of which they were born. You!—he would snarl savagely. You goofy-looking beanpole! You lanky, long-drawn son-of-a-bitch! You scrawny red-haired imbecile!

Doctor Murphy had always spoken to Doctor Murphy with disparagement and invective. But never with such frequence and intensity as since he had become the proprietor of El Healtho—Modern Treatment For Alcoholics. Not until then had he called himself dishonest; never before, in the endless annals of Murphy vs. Murphy, had the defendant been charged with gross incompetence. And yet—and this was odd—the knowledge that he was about to be divorced from El Healtho, no later, barring miracles, than the close of business today, did nothing to modify or mollify the prosecution. On the contrary, tonight he would shut down the sanitarium, and along with everything else, he would stand accused of failure, of bollixing a job, of screwing up the works. By God, but good!

El Healtho perches on a cliff overlooking the Pacific in the southerly limits of the city of Los Angeles. It is a rambling stucco and tile structure, styled in that school of architecture known as Spanish Mediterranean to its adherents and "California Gothic" to its detractors; originally the home of a silent motion-picture actor whose taste, whatever else may be said about it, proved considerably better than his voice.

As a matter of fact, it was not particularly unpleasing to the eye—unless that eye were Doctor Murphy's.

His long scrawny shanks clad in a pair of faded-red swim trunks, the good doctor squatted on the beach and stared blindly at the Pacific; April sunlight in his eyes, Arctic ice in his heart. He had been swimming for three hours when a great breaker had caught him up in its arms and hurled him rolling and spinning and half-drowned onto the sand. It had cast him up and out—and it should have, by God; he was enough even to make the ocean puke!—simultaneously burying him beneath a hundred-odd pounds of slithery seaweed.

Lying there, breathless, in the dank tentacled mess, he had remembered those searing lines from—from Wells? Yes, the Outline of History: "To this stage has civilization progressed from the slime of the tidal beaches…" And there had been a masochistic satisfaction in remembering, in associating the words with his own sorry state.

A hundred million years of life… and in what had it resulted? Well, it was obvious, wasn't it? A pile of crap. A will-less thing, floating on the tide, lacking the elementary grace to sink out of sight.

Doctor Murphy had entered the ocean with the intention of drowning himself. He felt that it would be a good idea, a clean-cut scientific approach to an otherwise insoluble problem; and a secret voice had advised him that here was triumph, not surrender, not exit but ingress. He was not sure of the soundness of his hunch, nor the veracity of the voice. Perhaps it would not have been a good idea; perhaps his voyage would have terminated in the phosphorescent muck of the ocean bottom. But—well, that was the point, you see. The fact that he wasn't sure. How in hell could a man know whether his ideas were good if he never tried them out?

And if a man wasn't willing to act on his ideas—if he didn't have the guts to act on 'em—why in the hell did he have to keep having 'em?

"Just once"—he spoke to the Pacific, his blue eyes frosty. "If I could just once, for once in my goddam life…"

Life had teased and taunted Doctor Murphy severely. It had constantly confronted him with problems, then presented him with solutions—a single solution to each—which he was incapable of using.

It had begun this evil teasing years before, long before he became Dr. Peter S. Murphy and was merely a freckle-faced brat—ol' Doc Murphy's kid, Pasty. Even then, life was giving him problems and answers—that's-the-only-way answers—leaving the rest of the world undisturbed. Was a dog beaten to death? Life brought the matter immediately to Doc Murphy's kid, advising him exactly what should be done… if anything was to be done at all. The other townsfolk were undisturbed; the incident was regrettable, sad, but best forgotten. They were allowed to forget it. But not Pasty Murphy. He had to do something—and the one adequate thing, the only thing, he could not do. He could procure the horse-whip, yes; he could find exactly the right place to lie in wait. And he could stand up silently in the darkness, bringing the whip back over his shoulder. But that was all he could do, that was as far as he could go. He could not knock the dog-beater senseless, then beat the dog-beater's rotten ass to the color of eggplant.…

Once, while he was interning at Bellevue, Dr. Pasteur Sem—that is, Dr. Peter S. Murphy, had lined up the most delectable piece in all Manhattan. She was a nurse, and she wasn't selling the stuff, you understand. But she required a great deal of working on. Well, young Doc Murphy had worked on that babe for months; and finally his victory seemed as imminent as it was inevitable. One firm and final move, and the jackpot would be his. So, with twenty dollars saved and another twenty borrowed, he took her to a nightclub. And their waiter—oh, damn his white-tied soul—had shamed and snubbed them unmercifully. He had made Doc look like a cheapskate, a boob, a shrimp, a guy contemptible and unworthy of the prize he sought.

Doc had laid his steak knife on the table, with the tip pointing outward. Casually, he had placed his elbow against the handle. Then, he waited, firmly intending to deprive that waiter permanently of what he himself had, but couldn't use. His opportunity came—and went. In the end, he and the girl slunk out of the nightclub, leaving the waiter triumphant and unharmed.

A couple of hundred yards away, now, around a curve in the beach, a neat blue trailer was parked. Doc turned and looked at it, just as a man leaned out the door and waved to him. Beckoned to him. Doc groaned and cursed.

He did not want to talk to Judson, ex-Navy corpsman, now the night attendant, night nurse, night everything at El Healtho. He didn't want any lectures from Judson, no matter how politely and subtly those lectures were delivered. He considered thumbing his nose at the night man. Why not? Who was the doctor in this place, he or Judson? Then, he stood up and shambled toward the trailer.

Though his night shift was over, and he would necessarily be going to bed in a few minutes, Judson had replaced his white uniform with spotless tan slacks and a short-sleeved sport shirt. Looking at him in his neatness, his cleanliness—looking at the man's chiseled black face with its serene intelligent eyes—Doc felt awkward and dirty and shabby. And somehow shamed. Judson was a Negro. He deserved better than his job. Judson served coffee on a small table set up on the sand. He offered cigarettes, made polite comment on the pleasantness of the morning. Doc waited warily.

"I don't like to mention it, Doctor, but—"

"The hell you don't!" snarled Doctor Murphy. "Well, go on. Get it off your chest!"

Judson looked at him gravely, silently.

The doctor grunted a word of apology. "I know. I talked pretty rough to Rufus, and it was the wrong thing to do. But dammit, Jud, look at the stunts he pulls! If I take my eyes off of him for a minute, he's—well, you know how he is!"

"I know," nodded Judson, "but it's only because he wants to better himself. He's ambitious."

"So he's ambitious," snapped Doc. "He wants to learn. Fine. Why can't he go about it the right way? Why can't he be, uh, well more like you?"

"Probably because he isn't me," Judson suggested pleasantly. "Or are you of the opinion all Negroes are born with equal abilities and receive equal opportunities?"

"Oh, go to hell," said Doc, wearily.

"As a matter of fact," said Judson, "I hadn't intended to say anything about Rufus. I didn't see any need to. I knew you were at least as much disturbed by what you said to him as he was—"

"The hell I was!" lied Doc. "I told him exactly what I should have!"

"… what I really wanted to talk about was Mr. Van Twyne. Do you think he should be here, Doctor? A prefrontal lobotomy case?"

"This is an alcoholic sanitarium," said Doctor Murphy. "He's an alcoholic."

"I see."

"Well, he is. He's worse than an alcoholic—he's a psychopathic drunk. Any other guy, a guy without dough, would be in the bughouse or Alcatraz for the stunts he's pulled. He's damned lucky that the courts gave him this chance; let him have the prefrontal instead of—"

"The operation was performed in New York, Doctor."

"That's bad? Where the hell would you go for a prefrontal?"

"To New York," said Judson. "And I would remain there, afterwards, under the care of the surgeons who performed it. Certainly, I would not allow myself to be transported across the country, a few days later, to an obscure—er—"

Doc's pale, never-tanning face had reddened. "I'm a horse-doctor?" he demanded. "I'm a diploma-mill quack? Why, dammit, if I'd wanted to turn this place into a cure-joint—if I'd been willing to sell silver salts and nux vomica at fifty dollars a shot—I'd be rolling in dough instead of—of—"

"No one," Judson was saying, "has more appreciation for your integrity and what you've tried to do here than I, Doctor. That's why I couldn't understand… will he be with us long?"

"I don't know," Doctor Murphy said, curtly. "What kind of night did he have?"

"Very bad, up until around midnight. Restive. Completely unresponsive to sedation. It was actually painful to watch him. He tried to talk to me, but having had none of the re-training he should have had—"

"Save it! Why didn't you call me?"

"I was on the point of doing so when I discovered the trouble. I took off his sheets, and…"

Judson explained. Angry fires danced in the doctor's eyes.

"That clumsy bitch!" he swore.

"Yes," said Judson. "It's hard to understand how a registered nurse could be so clumsy. How anyone who's had the slightest patient training could be."

"Well…" The doctor studied him frowning. "You're all wet if you think she's a fake. I checked her references myself."

"I don't doubt that she's an R.N., Doctor. I might say, however, that good references are rather easily come by."

"But, I don't—Are you trying to tell me that—"

"Only one thing. People work in places like these for only two reasons: Out of altruism, because, like you, they are genuinely interested in helping the alcoholic—"

"Me? Now, get this," said Doctor Murphy. "If every goddam alcoholic in the world dropped dead tomorrow, it would tickle me pink. I mean it, by God! I hate every damned one of 'em!"

Judson laughed softly. Doctor Murphy glowered at him.

"That's one reason," the Negro continued. "And not, I'm afraid, a very common one. The other? Well, that might be broken down into two reasons. Because they cannot hold jobs elsewhere. Or because the alcoholic sanitarium, with a clientele which shuns publicity, gives them a better than even chance to satisfy abnormal appetites."

"But you surely don't think—"

"Only this, Doctor. Mainly this. That the world being as it is, it is a rather terrible thing to condemn a man like Van Twyne to live in it a helpless idiot."

"Who's condemning him? How do you know he wouldn't be an idiot anyway? The pre-frontal is a hell of a long way from being perfected. It's a last-ditch operation—something you have when there's nothing left to lose. Where do you get that stuff, I'm condemning him?"

Judson shrugged. He picked up the doctor's cup with a polite, "May I?"

Doc swung his hand, palm open, slapping the cup far out into the water.

"How about it?" he raged, kicking back his campstool. "Do you think I like this, any damned stinking part of it? Haven't I sunk a fortune in this place without having a dime left to show for it? Haven't I worked my ass off, with nothing but a high-paid bunch of whiners and incompetents to help me?"

Judson shook his head sympathetically. He was very fond of Doctor Murphy.

"Now, get this," said the doctor, his voice hoarse. "I didn't have Humphrey Van Twyne III flown across country. His family did. I didn't solicit him as a patient. His family had him brought here. I didn't want to treat him here. They—their own family doctor insisted on it. What the hell? Who am I to tell them what to do? What if I did tell them? They'd just dump him in another place."

"I don't think so," said Judson. "I don't think they could."

"You don't think period," said Doctor Murphy. "You don't know what I'm up against. If I don't get—" He broke off the sentence abruptly. Something would turn up. Something had to turn up. He couldn't admit to the cold facts: That he would have to raise fifteen thousand dollars today or go out of business, and that the Van Twynes were the only possible means of raising it.

"I'm the guy who has to do the thinking," he continued. "I have to do the doing. Suppose I'm wrong. Suppose I weigh all the factors in the case and make my decision, and it turns out to be wrong. So what? I'm not infallible. I'm a doctor, not God. Goddammit, I'm not God!"

Judson turned his head and looked up the cliff. He looked back at the doctor, and nodded gravely.

"You are," he said, "so far as he's concerned."


While Judson and the doctor debated—the one calm and implacable, the other stubborn and angry—still another person wrestled with the problem represented by Humphrey Van Twyne III. This was Rufus; Rufus, also Negro, the day attendant at El Healtho. Rufus was considerably afraid of Humphrey Van Twyne III—"the man with no brains," as he thought of him.

Being an occupant of Room Four (or simply, Four, as the old-timers called it), the politely anonymous term for the sanitarium's padded cell, the man required a great deal of waiting on. And much of that waiting on was required of Rufus. And while the man appeared docile enough, Rufus was quite sure that he wasn't. He knew something of the man's history. Even without brains, a person who pursued such whims as biting folks' noses off was, in Rufus' opinion, a decided menace.


On Sale
Aug 5, 2014
Page Count
192 pages
Mulholland Books

jim thompson

Jim Thompson

About the Author

Jim Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. He began writing fiction at a very young age, selling his first story to True Detective when he was only fourteen. Thompson eventually wrote twenty-nine novels, all but three of which were published as paperback originals.

Thompson also co-wrote two screenplays (for the Stanley Kubrick films The Killing and Paths of Glory). Several of his novels have been filmed by American and French directors, resulting in classic noir including The Killer Inside Me (1952), After Dark My Sweet (1955), and The Grifters (1963).

Learn more about this author