The best part of The Bottom of the Bottle is the opening chapter in which we meet PM Ashbridge, a wealthy New Mexico rancher. He is drinking in a bar and the subtle complicity between drinker and bartender is well described:
Everything seems accidental, your gestures are the most casual in the world . . . It’s a secret order, with signs understood by the initiated throughout the country . . . With the first glass, for instance, when PM asks for whisky, or, more exactly, lets the word whisky escape from his lips with a kind of lassitude, or as if inadvertently, what does Bill do? He murmurs:
It’s scarcely a question. It’s taken for granted that a gentleman doesn’t come into the Montezuma to drink a single whisky.
PM goes to the washroom to check his appearance before deciding whether to have a final whisky. He is a man concerned about how he looks; a man in control of himself. Yet a few minutes, later he driving across the Mexican border into the ‘swarming, mysterious world’ of Nogales; a place where ‘furtive figures prowled’, ‘naked arms beckoned and women, half-dressed, walked confidently towards the cars.’
We assume that PM takes advantage of the services on offer, because as he drives home he is filled with self-loathing, so much so that he holds ‘the steering wheel in a special way, as if afraid of contaminating it.’
In these opening five pages Simenon sets up an intriguing premise: a wealthy, respectable man whose is unable to resist the urge to visit the ‘other’ side – symbolised very literally by the crossing of the border. The problem, with the novel, however, is that it doesn’t really follow through on this premise. It never really goes to the bottom of the bottle. PM never again visits the Montezuma bar, or crosses the border, either literally or symbolically. The urges he seems unable are never really explored.
Instead when he returns to his ranch, he finds his escaped convict brother, Donald, waiting for him. Donald needs PM’s help to get to Mexico where his wife and children are waiting, but this can no longer be achieved because the annual rains have come and the river they need to cross is in spate. So PM is forced to introduce his brother into the micro-society of wealthy ranchers, who spend their days dropping into each other houses and drinking until they pass out. The fact that this scenario is, to put it mildly, contrived is not the problem. While there is the odd well-drawn pen portrait (Ashbridge’s wife, Lil Noland), the scenes at the ranches never really come to life.
Donald is a forceful, unpleasant character, whom PM has always resented, and it is unclear why the reader should care either if he makes it to Mexico or if PM is caught harbouring a fugitive. Simenon uses his scenario to explore the rivalry between the two brothers (a quite common theme in his work). Donald is the younger, but acts in a domineering, aggressive way towards PM. PM feels inadequate because he has married into his wealth, while Donald has tried to make his own way in life, scraping a living from menial jobs. If PM wants to help his brother, it not out of fraternal feelings, but to alleviate his own guilt, both for the unwarranted luxury of his surroundings and for the fact that he has not shared any of his advantages with his family.
There’s nothing much wrong with any of this, only that the milieu and characterisation lack depth. Like quite a few of the author’s other American novels, it’s all a bit two-dimensional and you are left wishing Simenon had written the novel he embarked upon in the opening pages.
Le Fond de la Bouteille, first published 1949. Published by Hamish Hamilton 1977, translated by Cornelia Schaeffer.
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015