There is nothing like a Singapore Gin Sling for helping to see snakes in the Malayan jungles and giving you the courage to tackle them bare-handed.
1 JIGGER D.O.M (Benedictine), 2 JIGGERS CHERRY BRANDY, 3 JIGGERS DRY GIN, JUICE OF ONE LIME, DASH OF ORANGE BITTERS, DASH OF ANGOSTURA BITTERS
Add water or soda (as preferred) in Amount Equal to the Above Ingredients. Mix with Swizzle Stick Until Foamy. Add Ice Chipped Fine, and Serve.
– From So Red the Nose
Frank Buck’s re-imagining of the Singapore Sling is the only drink I have made so far that can properly be called “fruity.” But it’s a serious, dark-colored, 1930’s kind of fruity. Just compare my picture to this one of a modern Sling. See how much prettier and pinker the 2014 version is?
That fruity flavor comes from a quite delicious combination of lime, cherry brandy, and soda water (The soda water trick is fantastic. It doubles your sipping time while adding delightful fizzies).
I realized why the syrupy sweetness of cherry brandy was necessary once I tasted the D.O.M Benedictine (Didn’t have too much trouble finding it, but I get the feeling it’s mostly kept in stock specifically for slings). I took a straight shot (in the name of research), and it was more nostril-burning and choke-inducing than a shot of pure vodka.
The funny thing about this drink was that the bubbly, (relatively) fruity sweetness of it fooled me. It tasted like cherry soda, so I drank it like cherry soda — that is, in big gulps — forgetting that 1 shot 0f D.O.M + 2 shots of cherry brandy + 3 shots of gin = a whopping 6-shot drink! I experimented with different times of day and slower methods of drinking, but I inevitably ended up with that eponymous red nose.
My business is to collect wild animals and bring ’em back alive for the zoos and circuses.
-from Bring ‘Em Back Alive (keeping it simple this week)
Bring ‘Em Back Alive is the out-of-print memoirs of Frank Buck, an animal-capturer from the 1910’s till into the 1930’s when this book was published. His adventures are a bit like the literary equivalent of The Crocodile Hunter, if The Crocodile Hunter included more lassoing man-eating tigers, fist-fighting with orangutans, being flung through the air by elephant trunks, running through the streets of Singapore in a union-suit, ship passengers conducting monkey-capturing competitions, and a heck of a lot more gin.
Why yes. It is as awesome as it sounds.
Truly, this book was a joy to read. Each chapter is an individual vignette, and Buck had a talent for telling each story in a snappy, satisfying way, while still including a lot of rich detail about the people and animals he encountered in his travels all over the Asian continent. He also had this very wry sense of humor that only becomes funnier with the addition of alcohol.
Surprisingly enough, Buck’s attitude toward animals was just the salve I needed after my last review, as Hemingway definitely would have labeled Buck an animal over-identifier. Although I’m sure some would argue that his entire profession violated the rights’ and well-being of animals, his words nonetheless portray both a passion about and compassion toward his fellow creatures. He more than once risked his own life to save one of his captures and experienced real pain when he was unsuccessful (“To me, an animal dying is as painful a sight as a human death,” he states simply.)
This sentiment becomes apparent in one of the very first chapters, in which he describes a truly horrific act of animal cruelty performed in a royal court against a tiger for the sake of entertainment. It was quite heart-breaking to read, but Buck described the tiger’s expressions and emotions with such empathy that it actually brought tears to my eyes.
As much as I enjoyed Buck’s story-telling, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this fun little book does a flaw, and it’s one of the big ones: RACISM. Buck’s attitude toward the Asian people he works and trades with leaves a lot to be desired for the modern reader.
Now, this book is no Tarzan. It isn’t really hateful, just condescending, with a tendency toward stereotyping Asian cultures in an uncharitable light. He always calls his assistant Ali — who he actually seems to have a real affection and respect for — “boy,” for example. He even seems to be aware of the problem with this: “Ali, though past fifty, was still a ‘boy,’ as all native workers are.” He also uses unfortunate terms like “barbarian” and “primitive” in his descriptions of the Asian “natives.”
So that’s two racist books out of the five I’ve read so far for this literary/alcoholic blast from the past. I’m not surprised, exactly; it’s just not something I had even considered before I began. It’s truly been a grounding experience, uncovering some real ugliness in a time period that — truth be told — I idealize and romanticize quite a bit, as do many in my age bracket (hipsters, I’m looking at you).
It honestly saddens me, though, that something so fun and breezy is marred by something so unequivocally negative. Every time he makes fun of some trader (“Sakais…look so much like monkeys I’ve been tempted more than once to bring back some specimens and exhibit them,” he jokes in passing.”) or mentions some stereotype off-the-cuff , the result is jarring and took me out of the flow and enjoyment of reading.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
The term “classic,” can mean “old and popular,” such as Gone with the Wind or Murder on the Orient Express. Or it can mean, “old and artistically valuable,” such as the works of Shakespeare or Jane Eyre.
You will never hear an argument from me that Bring ‘Em Back Alive falls into the latter category (For Years of Grace, on the other hand, I will put up my dukes.). It is pure fun, adventure, and humor. It’s everything I wanted in a nostalgic romp back to the early 1900’s.
Be that as it may, we tend to give more of a pass to any of the “-isms” that show up in the second kind of book, where we probably won’t with the first. Hemingway, for example, had a weirdly-out-of-place and apparently-hilarious-to-him homophobic rant against the artist El Greco in Death, which included the words “fairy” and “faggot” in both Spanish and English. But will we as a culture ever take him off our library shelves? No. Of course not. He’s Hemingway, full stop. On the other hand, maybe there actually is a reason books like Bring ‘Em Back Alive are allowed to go out of print, fall apart, and be quietly thrown away.
So is Bring ‘Em Back Alive strong enough to be worth the revisit despite its non-PCness? Every reader has to answer that for themselves, depending on their own tolerance, experience, and burning desire for early-century zoology. For myself, I think that we can enjoy basically any work, as long as we recognize and acknowledge the issues therein. Racist artworks are only dangerous if we don’t look at them critically, if we enjoy them not in spite of the views presented, but because we have internalized those views so much that we don’t even see them.
Bring ‘Em Back Alive is a available for free from the Internet Archive. Unfortunately, there are a few pages missing/moved around in this version.
Next time: We leave the tropics for an adventure in the urban jungle with Swiss Family Manhattan.