Thursday, November 12, 2009


"Hangover" is one of John D MacDonald's very best short stories. Originally published in the July 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, it has been included in at least three anthologies (End of the Tiger and Other Stories: 1966, Crimes and Misfortunes: The Anthony Boucher Memorial Anthology of Mysteries: 1970, and Hitchcock in Prime Time: 1985) and was infamously adapted for television as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962. Clocking in at a modest 5,000 words, "Hangover" is a model of storytelling and a lesson in plotting, pacing, characterization and style. There is not a wasted word, space or punctuation mark in the entire story. I remember how amazed I was after reading it for the first time in 1974, and thinking that if someone translated this story into French or Russian and had it published in a European literary magazine, its author would be hailed as the next Turgenev. It was chosen as the lead story in MacDonald's first short story anthology and remains as contemporary and as entertaining as it must have been when it was first published.
Hadley Purvis, a New York ad agency executive, awakens one morning to a killer of a hangover. In six beautifully crafted paragraphs MacDonald masterfully brings to life the agony and regret of the morning after, and anyone who has lived through one will recognize every word:

"...the pulsing roar was his own harsh breathing, the parched feeling was a consuming thirst, the brightness was transmuted into pain localized behind his eyes... this was the morning time of awareness of discomfort so acute that he had no thought for anything beyond the appraisal of the body and its functions. Though he was dimly aware of psychic discomforts that might later exceed the anguish of the flesh, the immediacy of bodily pain localized his attentions...the heart knocked sharply with a violence and in a cadence almost hysterical, so that no matter how he turned his head, he could feel it, a tack hammer chipping away at his mortality... His thirst was monstrous, undiminished by the random nausea that teased at the back of his throat... the pain behind his eyes was a slow bulging and shrinking, in contrapuntal rhythm to the clatter of his heart... he felt weak, nauseated, and acutely depressed. This was the great joke. This was the hangover. Thing of sly wink, of rude guffaw. This was death in the morning."
Slowly, through the course of the morning as he gets out of bed and makes his endless way into the bathroom, his memory of the night before comes back to him, in brief flashes and vignettes, following no particular chronological order. His momentary fear that he is "slowly turning into an alcoholic" is dismissed as "nonsense... the usual morbidity of hangover." Yet, he thinks of how the "rum sour on Sunday mornings had become a ritual with him," and how his wife "learned somehow that whenever he went to the kitchen to refill their glasses from the martini jug in the deep freeze, he would have an extra one for himself, opening his throat for it, pouring it down in one smooth, long silvery gush. By mildness of tone she had trapped him into an admission, then had told him that the very secrecy of it was 'significant.' He had tried to explain that his tolerance for alcohol was greater than hers, and that it was easier to do it that way than to listen to her tiresome hints about how many he was having." Hadley ruefully realizes that today is a work day and that "it would be twelve-thirty before the first martini at Mario's."

This is MacDonald at his best, a master of both subject matter and the words to convey it, written with economy and style.

As Purvis stands in the shower he begins "to think of the previous evening. He had much experience in this sort of reconstruction. He reached out with memory timorously, anticipating remorse and self-disgust." He gradually recalls to mind how an important evening with a major client had gone horribly wrong. A major automaker was in town to see the unveiling of an ad campaign to introduce a new model, and it was to take place in a downtown hotel. Purvis had "taken it very easy at Mario's at lunchtime," but a perceived slight from a co-worker later in the day (about his drinking, of course) upset him and a gnawing resentment starts to build. After he arrives at the hotel and rides up to the convention room he spies "sixty feet of bar" and orders a martini. "With the first drink, the last traces of irritation at [his co-worker] disappeared." It is then that MacDonald masterfully describes the basis of his alcoholism:

"Hadley placed himself at the bar. He was not alone long. Within ten minutes he was the center of a group of six or seven. He relished these times when he was sought out for his entertainment value. The drinks brought him quickly to the point where he was, without effort, amusing. The sharp phrases came quickly, almost without thought. They laughed with him and appreciated him. He felt warm and loved.

"He remembered that there had been small warnings in the back of his mind, but he had ignored them. He would know when to stop. He told the story about Jimmy and Jackie and the punch card over at Shor's, and he knew he told it well, and knew he was having a fine time, and knew that everything was beautifully under control.

"But beyond that point, memory was faulty. It lost continuity. It became episodic, each scene bright enough, yet separated from other scenes by a grayness he could not penetrate."

The drinking continues, he makes a complete ass of himself in front of the client and is fired. His boss gives him a classic dressing down as he lets him go, ending "You're a clever man, Purvis, but the town is full of clever men who can hold liquor!"
And that's when his troubles really begin...

I've found myself coming back to "Hangover" time and time again over the years, enjoying it every time I re-read it. There's an almost Jim Thompson-feeling of hopelessness and despair at the very onset. MacDonald usually writes about focused, driven professionals with few moral shortcomings, so when he does write about a loser, it seems especially poignant, and Hadley Purvis has to rank high (or low) on a list of JDM heroes.

When The Alfred Hitchcock Hour decided to dramatize "Hangover" in its first season, they apparently felt there wasn't enough story for a full hour and combined it with the story of another author. MacDonald wrote about it in the introduction to End of the Tiger:

"Perhaps the most curious thing which happened to any of these stories was when the Alfred Hitchcock program turned "Hangover" into one of the more successful hour shows in that series. Tony Randall did an exceptional job as the lead. Suddenly the television play took an unexpected turn. I watched, astonished. Before my very eyes, there on my little boob tube, was a woman, a conflict, a resolution which had not been in the story I wrote. Then it returned to my story line. When the credits came on at the end I discovered what had happened. They had taken two stories and had compelled some baffled script writer to combine them into one. It was merely good fortune he was so competent the seams hardly showed."

Nineteen years later, in 1985 when the story was anthologized in Hitchcock in Prime Time, MacDonald wrote a similar afterward to the story, this time correctly recalling that the dual story credit came on at the beginning of the show, not the end. Also, he was not as charitable:

"The passage of years has not diminished my bafflement and annoyance at what television did to 'Hangover.' I was indeed pleased when I heard that it would be on the Hitchcock Hour. As soon as the titles came on the screen, I realized some committee of idiots had decided to combine my story with another story by Charles Runyon. The result, of course, was cluttered nonsense. The bright and shining spot was Tony Randall as Hadley Purvis. He was absolutely right. "Hangover" is, I think, a sufficiently strong story to carry the viewer along for the required fifty minutes of narrative flow. I suspect that it is decisions like this one, errors in taste and in performance, which have brought the networks to the sorry condition in which we see them today, dying and dwindling and flapping about in a hen yard of schlock."

I agree with MacDonald that the result was "cluttered nonsense," but not with his assertion that it would have fit into a one hour time slot without padding or a slackened pace. It would have been a perfect entry for a half hour episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The seams in the episode are very apparent, and even the sections that dwell exclusively in MacDonald territory are done wrong. The ad campaign presentation is the best example of this. The short story's brief, embarrassed recollections of being the center of attention, shoving himself into a conversation between his boss and the client, dropping food and ultimately fighting with the drummer of the hired band while trying to usurp him from his stool, are replaced by a long, tedious drunken presentation by Purvis in front of a silent audience. This was not the Hitchcock Hour's finest moment.
For years I had assumed that the other story that had been combined with "Hangover," Charles Runyon's 1960 story also titled "Hangover" and published in Manhunt magazine, was a piece of junk. When I actually read it in 1985 and again recently, I was surprised at how enjoyable it was. While lacking the style and subtext of MacDonald's tale, Runyon wrote a good story that is filled with detailed and descriptive passages of the aftermath of a five day drinking binge:

"[The kitchen] was a mess. Odors of stale food and liquor rose from a sink piled high with dirty dishes and glasses. The stove held a stew pan filled with black pebbles that once were beans... I saw two plates on the table. One held a puddle of gray grease with a slab of bacon in the center, garnished by a long auburn hair..I shuffled through the long living room and found the front door open. The carpet around it was damp; the door had stood open all night and it had rained... Around the front steps lay proof that life in Elysia had flowed on without me. Several bottles of milk warmed in the sun... Two newspapers formed a wet, gluey mass on the sidewalk. A third lay near the door, crisp and dry and smelling of ink as I picked it up... I raised my eyes and saw my car crosswise in the drive. The back wheels rested on my neighbor's lawn... [Back inside] the bar held no bourbon; no Scotch... all the bottles were empty. I prowled the room and found a beer mug containing an inch of bourbon and a shredded cigarette butt. I fished out the butt, gulped down the bourbon, and shuddered like a volcano about to erupt. I swallowed three times times before the bourbon gave up and decided to stay down."

That's wonderful stuff...

The biggest surprise in reading Runyon's story is that it is basically MacDonald's from beginning to end. Both heroes awaken to massive hangovers and have difficulty recalling the previous day. Both are business executives who have been fired as a result of their inebriation, and both stories end virtually identically, although I won't reveal that here. And while MacDonald's hero is a real alcoholic while Runyon's is a revenge-seeking cuckold, it's the exact same plot structure and I'm surprised MacDonald didn't try and sue the guy.

The Hitchcock episode can be watched for free on Hulu.

(The interior magazine illustrations were found at Today's Inspiration, a great blog on popular artwork from the middle of the last century.)


  1. Thank you very much for writing this. I just saw "The Hangover" on TV for the first time this morning. I noticed, at the outset, that the teleplay was credited to two writers' works; afterward, I wanted to know what the short stories were--and exactly how the TV producers had merged them. Your blog gave me all that, and is a wonderful read, to boot. Thanks again!

  2. "Hangover" is also collected in The Arbor House Treasury of Mystery and Suspense (1982) . This is no doubt one of his best short stories! His descriptions of what it's like to have a bad hangover are so spectacularly good. I havn't had a hangover in probably 20 years, but reading this story brought it all back and reminded me why it's never good to drink more than one's limit. And what an ending! That last paragraph is pure gold.