One could be forgive for believing that the expression “punch drunk” has something to do with alcoholic punch, and that to be “punch drunk” is therefore to be, or to resemble, a man filled to the gills with that sticky and treacherous concoction.
But this belief would be mistaken. To be “punch drunk” (or “punchy”) is to be fuddled by repeated blows to the head. Used metaphorically, it means permanently dazed by the pummeling of personal failure.
A punch-drunk man has not gone on a bender; he has taken a beating.
What got me thinking about “punch drunk” was this evocative line in a description of a dejected little cotton town, predominantly Black, in northern Mississippi, on a summer afternoon in 1949.
“Of course the day was hot, but the atmosphere of being punch drunk from the mere act of having to exist is, I suspect, a permanent feature of the place” (1).
I know just the atmosphere he is talking about, and suspect that he is right about its permanence. The United States is rich in these dismal, dejected places, and the South especially. If you have traveled any distance by car, and have left the interstate, you have seen their moldering shacks, have perhaps entered their grimy gas stations, have likely wondered about the beaten men and women who shuffle back and forth between one and the other.
I do not mean to be unkind. Life has left me a little punch drunk. Maybe everyone is beaten in the end. On most park benches in Florida, you will find a man with a dazed “what happened?” expression on his face. To live is, it seems, to get pummeled, and then to wait for the end with a punch-drunk “what happened?” expression on your face.
But a punch-drunk man is not at all the same as a punch-drunk place. He’s not long for this world, but that place will still be there, moldering and grimy as ever, a hundred years from now.
James Burnham explained why in Death of the West. He was talking about skid row, but a punch-drunk country town is nothing but skid row in the boondocks. As Burnham explained, skid row is simply “the end of the road” in the way of failure. It is where failure collects, like runoff in a sump. It’s where broken men go to take one last beating before they drop over the edge of existence, and out of sight altogether.
(1) Ward L. Miner, The World of William Falkner (New York: Pageant Books, 1952), p. 67.