1/4 WHITE MINT
PLENTY OF ICE
Pour into Cocktail Shaker and Shake as Though You Were a Terrier with a Dead Rat
“If, gentlemen, you believe this is no drink even for The Barbarians, then I nominate the milk punch, which stands by you through thick and thin and is the perfect noggin for the Usher Who Forgot Himself:
1 1/2 JIGGERS BOURBON IN A TALL GLASS
3 LUMPS OF ICE
1 TABLESPOON SUGAR
FILL GLASS WITH MILK SERVE UNDER AN CIRCUMSTANCES.
That’s right people: two drinks for the price of one! But the catch is neither of them are originals.
The Barbarians is essentially a mint julep minus the sugar, and the drink doesn’t suffer too much from its absence. Like all mint-based cocktails, it is still delightfully refreshing on days hot enough to make you long for death (at least underground is out of the sun, amiright?). On the other hand, no cocktail was ever hurt by a little sugar, so I would stick to the original julep unless you are just a diehard bourbon enthusiast.
By the way, I spent a lot of time agonizing over what author Virginia Faulkner could have meant by “white” mint, assuming it did not refer to a cutsey bathroom wall color. I couldn’t find any specific definition, but it appears to just mean regular (spear)mint, as opposed to black mint.
The milk punch was also not an original of Faulkner’s, but, in fact, the grandmother of all milkshakes pretending to be adult beverages, dating all the way back to the 1600s. Nowadays, milk-punch drinkers fancy it up with vanilla and nutmeg, but originally it was just the simple recipe listed above: milk, with just a hint of bourbon and sugar for extra awesomeness. It tastes precisely as good as it sounds.
Thematically, the link between both these cocktails and the book is pretty weak. They are distinctly Southern drinks (our first bourbon ones!) while The Barbarians is set in France and only features a few not-particularly-patriotic American expatriates. They have a good reason be indifferent to their homeland, though. I mean, if you had managed to escape death in the Great War, would you want to return to a place that forbid alcohol?
“I think,” said Andreas solemnly, “that almost certainly he’s a Barbarian.”
“Is he handsome?”
“Does he have — um — abnormal gemütlichkeit?”
“Is he broke?”
“Undoubtedly one of us,” mused Marie. “What does he do besides live?”
— from The Barbarians
From what I’ve been able to glean, the Nebraska native published her first novel, Friends and Romans, at the age of 20, and its companion novel, The Barbarians, the following year — 1935. After such an early start, she bounced around, reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines, writing a few plays, and just generally letting herself sink into literary obscurity.
The Barbarians carries the same name as its ensemble cast of characters, a madcap, nationally diverse group of young, bohemian artists living in Paris in 1922. They were brought to France as soldiers or nurses in World War I, but now spend their days trying to shock the older generation with their constant double entendres, as well as hatching dubious schemes to avoid starvation.
After a scam on an American gangster gone horribly wrong suddenly goes wonderfully right, the Barbarians find themselves with enough extra cash to take a seaside holiday. There, one of their members, the painter Andreas, meets and falls in love with the extremely sheltered and childishly innocent Lise, who then promptly falls in love with fellow Barbarian Tavo, not realizing he’s a gigolo and not really husband material, when further complications arise in the form of her mother saying she must marry a man named Beppo, and she can’t refuse because she just learned she is a love child, but Beppo thinks Lise is the one having a love child. Meanwhile, the other Barbarians get arrested because they befriended a monolingual Pole who turned out to be a political agitator, but he wasn’t a real friend, you see, they just needed another man to round out the group while Tavo was sailing with those Brits, and…
It’s a farce, in other words. Which is great because I The Barbarians works for me where other “funny” books from this era did not is that the novel gives the reader a narrative and characters they are actually invested in, rather than just a collection of random nonsense.
Oh, but there’s plenty of random nonsense in The Barbarians too, never fear. The group’s conversations are 100 percent constant, silly repartee. The reader can’t take any of the Barbarians’ problems too seriously when they themselves certainly don’t. But somehow you end up liking them — and the side characters — anyway.
Ok, the climax does get a little dark when Lise’s heart gets broken, leading up to an attempted rape scene (!), but that is all resolved quickly and heart-warmingly enough.
It makes sense that this was a companion novel (“Not a sequel!” the back of the book tells me. Apparently Friends and Romans concerned just one of the Barbarians, the sexually-liberated pianist Marie Manfred) because The Barbarians doesn’t feel like comprehensive epic so much as just one of the many little adventures this group undertakes on the regular. It’s a shame Faulkner apparently lost interest in novel writing, as I could have seen her turning the Barbarians exploits into a series of twenty or so fluffy beach reads.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
In the highly unlikely event you ever come across The Barbarians, it will serve you well as a fun, snappy read. It’s sexy and lively in a sort of retro, flapperish way. It’s not, like, belly-laugh funny or anything, but the silly puns, clever comebacks, and ridiculous behaviors definitely cause some chuckles.
And that’s really all I have to say about The Barbarians. Much shorter than last time, I know, but this book is kind of the anti-Anthony Adverse. Even at 326 pages, this story blew by incredibly quickly; I think I finished in an afternoon. And I’ll probably forget it just as fast. But, after Allen’s emotional and literary slog, The Barbarians was sweet, light, and refreshing.
Used copies of The Barbarians are available on Amazon.
Next time: A very silly title for a very serious subject.