A few weeks ago, a study out of Australia officially declared Ian Fleming’s 60-year-old superspy James Bond a massive alcoholic. That’s right: actual Adult Scholars put together an academic analysis finding 007 guilty of possessing a “severe chronic alcohol problem.” This made headlines. I saw it on broadcast news and as an AP news alert on my phone. It was even a feature on CNN’s homepage for an entire day. I don’t know what’s more mind-blowing: that someone thought it was interesting to plot out a fictional character’s alcoholism, or that someone was surprised that Bond had an alcohol problem. Alcoholism is a fundamental part of what makes Bond, well, Bond. It’s also what makes him emptily human. It’s not a throwaway character flaw. See, you’re not supposed to applaud his penchant for martinis. You’re supposed to wonder how booze works as gasoline on his globe-trotting fire.
His drinking problem underscores the sad truth that all of us alcoholics live with: we’re always living in the moment, chasing the now, and never thinking of tomorrow. Bond exemplifies pain. He is a character designed to not survive any given turn—despite somehow surviving every catastrophe known to man for decades. He doesn’t expect to live. Hell, he even tells his boss M in Casino Royale that being a 00 means having a short life expectancy. But if you consider that Bond is a real human being as the Medical Journal of Australia does, you’ll see that he’s managed to survive the improbable and is doomed to a darker fate than any super villain could mastermind. The consequences of his lifestyle will eventually catch up with him.
The study found that Bond “drunk heavily and consistently” with 109 “drinking events” across the 24 movies. (Apparently, they didn’t take any of Fleming’s novels or the continuations into consideration, which would have only strengthened their case.) According to the study, 007 drinks “prior to fights, driving vehicles (including in chases), high stakes gambling, operating complex machinery or devices, contact with dangerous animals, extreme athletic performance, and sex with enemies, sometimes with guns or knives in the bed.” (Not going to lie: I’m pretty impressed.) The study also found “Bond has a severe chronic alcohol problem [and]should consider seeking professional help and find other strategies for managing on-the-job stress.
Look: I’m a massive Bond fan. Our house is filled with hardcovers, vintage paperbacks, video games, record albums, random cars, production call sheets, comics, posters, autographed memorabilia, and other items that will just get more embarrassing as the list goes on. But you get the idea. I also didn’t find the character late in life or appreciate Bond as some sort of postmodern meta-antihero, especially in this charged political landscape. No, he’s been with me a long time. It’s not because I identify with his drinking problem or inability to see past his next assignment. It’s because I know he’s rough around the edges. He’s like that old best friend who you invite over to a dinner party and then you wince the whole time, wondering what he’ll say. That’s Bond. He’s just always been there for me—starting with my mom taking me to see Octopussy when I was way too young to see Octopussy. While all of the double entendres were lost on me, the action sure as hell wasn’t: personal jets with fold-up wings outrunning heat-seeking missiles; cars that chased trains straight down railroad tracks; escapes through jungles and Indian bazaars. Oh my God. My little mind was blown. Almost overnight, I’d graduated from “One Of These Things Is Not Like the Other” on Sesame Street to Roger Moore sliding down a bannister and bloodlessly mowing sword-wielding bad guys down with a machine gun.
That’s why, in almost every single way, Bond movies primed me to be an alcoholic. And not in the cute, shaken-not-stirred sense of the word “alcoholic,” either. The fact that Bond, the character, is a heavy drinker is almost incidental. No, growing up on 007 films entirely skewed how I looked at the world. I found myself racing from one extreme to the other — literally, figuratively and emotionally. Everything was a life-or-death struggle, an atomic countdown or some fantastical impossibility that only I could outwit. I treated life and everyone I met without consequence — I was always going to escape. Even drinking was something I could outsmart. It was never going to win out in the end.
Around the same time I was introduced to the wonders of Octopussy’s International Circus, we got a VCR. I can still remember the futuristic sound of the top loader opening up and the smell of rented videocassettes — the bright, exotic perfume of chemicals and promise. One of my very first trips to a strip-mall video store revealed an entire library of James Bond movies, with all the thick clamshell cases showing off artwork from different adventures I didn’t know about. In the public library under “Fleming,” there were entire rows of 007 novels. Instead of going to the kids’ section and hunting down the latest Encyclopedia Brown mystery, I was turning around The Man With The Golden Gun in my hands, flipping through the pages and gazing at the cover. Sadly, no kid-detective who loved pancakes had rocket-missiles hidden in his car’s headlights. Even if I couldn’t understand the book, I knew what world the pages contained and that was good enough for me.
I was drawn to Bond movies in all the ways songs draw you in before you even notice their lyrics: the movies held a lusty sway over me and I simply didn’t really understand why. I didn’t care. Looking back, I suppose it could have been anything: their swelling scores, lush cinematography or clear-cut villainy. The fact that 007 is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur — a relic of the Cold War” (as M once called him) was entirely lost on me. The Bond of the novels, especially, is a hard-drinking, bitter and not particularly handsome antihero. (For a more eloquent criticism, Paul Johnson’s 1958 review of Dr. No equated Bond with “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult.”) All I really knew (or cared about) was that Bond got into larger-than-life adventures; I sort of tuned out the rest. I was drawn to his slinking around in the dark, being debonair and having women drawn into his orbit like unsuspecting weather satellites.
Bond movies operate on a formula. More than anything, it’s this consistency that appealed to me from a young age. Nearly every one hit the exact same series of beats: opening action sequence; mission briefing from M; gadget update from Q; meeting the femme fatale; initial face-off with the villain; threat from the henchman; action; fighting; final battle. Sprinkle in some drinking, far-flung locales and willing women. If a Bond movie weren’t to meet those expectations, it would be like the time my buddy Cole went to see Wilco and all they played were new songs: you just can’t do that. My alcoholic life was just as formulaic — it operated along the same lines almost every single day. I woke up every morning with a head full of fire; drug myself to work; faked my way through the day; met a few people in between; had a final showdown with booze. There was no deviating from that formula. That was the sad script I had to follow. If I changed anything, I lost something of myself.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve managed to show my young sons pretty much every James Bond action sequence there is. I don’t know why — they’re eight and five. (Maybe there’s some real-world educational value to showing grade-school children how to escape from a crocodile farm.) Anyway, it just feels like something I should do, like some sort of natural directive I should obey or genetic information I’m passing downstream. At some point, Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton uttered a line of dialogue and one of my kids went wide-eyed: “James Bond talks?” It was a profound moment and it took me weeks to realize why.
This is what I’d been doing wrong with my life. I’d been carving out all the best parts and ignoring the 99% that justified the very cool 1%. I’d long forgotten the part where James Bond had an actual function, purpose and mission. That’s how I was living. Very similarly, my life was no more than a series of soulless stunts. I’d fast-forwarded to all the nifty scenes. I was so caught up in all the action sequences of life that I’d managed to entirely overlook the story — no matter how formulaic it had become — and the fact that I was leaving a string of casualties in my wake. I treated life like the next day was an entirely new Bond adventure — a hard reset where everything that happened the day before was forgotten, wiped clean and recast.
When you’re an alcoholic like me, your world may as well be populated with henchmen who wear killer, steel-tipped bowler-hats. All of the things that went wrong in my life — lost jobs, missing friends and abandoned plans — could be chalked up to some grand, impossibly complex master plan. Someone else was always to blame. As an alcoholic, I’d come to think that the odds were constantly stacked against me and other people were constantly conspiring to undermine my best intentions. But to be honest, this is just how I set my life up. I’d designed it this way. Secretly, this is how I’d wanted it. I’d written my own sad facsimile of a Bond script and I didn’t know that I was actually the main villain in it. I treated life like there was always an ejector seat, some Q gadget up my sleeve, or some counterpart ready to extract me. There never was. The universe of Bond movies isn’t something to aspire to — they’re a celebration of excess, fantasy and impossibility. And in all the same ways that James Bond’s secret identity is the world’s worst-kept secret, so too was my drinking problem. Everyone knew it except me.