Against the backdrop of America’s worst economic slide since the Great Depression, only a few industries have managed to buck the trend of declining profits. One of those industries, the liquor trade, could hardly be described as a household necessity, and yet alcohol continues to turn a profit despite tough economic times. It’s a testament to the enduring place that drinking and drinking culture inhabits at the heart of the American experience, but also highlights the anomaly that is the U.S. attempt at Prohibition. Daniel Okrent explores this odd national experiment in the excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
Last Call manages to avoid the fixation on organized crime that many other Prohibition accounts seem to be hung up on. Certainly, Okrent doesn’t ignore the influence of organized crime, but simply folds the information into his narrative to provide a thorough documentation of one of the most fascinating political movements in American history.
From the start, those in the prohibition movement could be described as politically unlikely bedfellows. A “dry” supporter could just as easily be a pro-isolationist Klan member as they could a suffragist promoting temperance. Okrent really shines when he unravels this complex sociopolitical tapestry. Last Call similarly excels when Okrent shares anecdotes about Americans’ personal relationships with drink and the ingenuous lengths they would go to get their suds.
Last Call isn’t the lightest piece of nonfiction around, but its expertly crafted narrative, fascinating anecdotes, and whimsical treatment make it an approachable read. Anyone interested in American history, the prohibition era, or the 1920s in general will come away with something. This work also served as inspiration for the Ken Burns directed Prohibition miniseries on PBS. Either work is an excellent choice.