By Brian Fee

Would-be roman-fleuve writers: don't equate quaffing as much coffee as Honoré de Balzac with prolific yields. For the father of the naturalist novel, regular 15-hour stints fueled by that blessed brew still weren't sufficient to finish his multi-volume magnum opus La Comédie humane. Though in Balzac's defense, he did complete some 91 works, like the charmingly titledL'envers de l'histoire contemporaine, aka The Seamy Side of History.

Hear caffeine's effects from Balzac himself: "Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges ... the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder."

My pulse raced just reading that. Mind you, I grew up around Houston, TX, land of purple drank, at the psychoactive spectrum's extreme opposite end. I achieved some of my best writing as a freshman at the University of Texas, when a semester-spanning head cold meant daily draughts of Dimetapp. While I wasn't sippin' on some syzzurp beyond the prescribed dosage, the dextromethorphan did wonders for my Japanese Ghost Stories papers. I forewent speaking in class (thanks to dex's dissociative effects), but my ambrosial deciphering of selections from Kwaidan and Ugetsu prompted my predilection for J-Horror.

I was a ubiquitous presence at the 24-hour coffeehouse near campus. I didn't share Balzac's focused work ethic and caffeine tolerance, though I subsisted nights on "hammerheads"—the cafe's name for a pint glass of black coffee with two shots of espresso, like a nerve-rattling sake bomb—and secondhand smoke, while writing on Italian modernist cinema.

Now absinthe, that's an addiction I'd like to claim. Here in NYC, I frequented White Star, mixmaster Sasha Petraske's former brick-lined corridor down on Essex Street. I'd chase la fée verte while negotiating my art-critique notes. It was like my own Midnight in Paris, but what impressionable young romantics haven't imagined themselves within fin de siècle Paris?

I've never attended a gallery opening under the influence of absinthe. Though it's quite clear art and excessive booze don't well mix. Nor have I been bothered to procure my own absinthiana accoutrements to serve it at home (that spigot fountain, the Pontarlier reservoir glasses, the damn slotted spoons). I suppose a bottle of Kübler Superieure might suffice, but for me—an aficionado if not a total addict—the preparation ritual is as important as the enduring round-edged buzz.

Photo: composite image of Big Moe and Honoré de Balzac, culled from Wikipedia and Photo-chopped by the author