He glanced once at his favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as for a drug. (1.2.6)
For Babbitt, sleeping in is like taking a drug. Why, you ask? Because both sleep and drugs are ways of escaping from a reality that he doesn't want to face.
It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer of the prohibition-era and the cigars to which that beer enticed him. (1.3.2)
Babbitt always wonders where happiness and sadness come from. In this case, he feels as if his happiness is coming from alcohol and tobacco. It's not about finding deeper meaning in life. It's about using whatever chemicals you need to make your brain feel good.
"I do like decent cigars—not those Flor de Cabagos you're smoking—." (5.3.41)
Paul Riesling likes cigars just as much as the next man. In fact, he probably likes them even more because he's so miserable. In a situation like Paul's, a person will sometimes use whatever means he can to take his mind off of his problems.
"You […] are a middle-road liberal, and you haven't the slightest idea what you want. I, being a revolutionist, know exactly what I want—and what I want now is a drink." (7.5.10)
In a heated conversation, a man tells Seneca Doane that he is ultimately not a strong enough liberal. Which is saying something, because the conservative characters in this book practically consider Doane a terrorist. Even in this heated political discussion, though, everything boils down to one man's desire to have a drink.
"Nup. Twelve. This is the real stuff, smuggled from Canada. This is none o' your neutral spirits with a drop of juniper extract." (8.2.37)
Babbitt visits an alcohol bootlegger named Hanson in hopes of getting some booze for his party that night. And of course he'll pay whatever price Hanson wants, since Hanson is the only game in town.
He did not possess a cocktail-shaker. A shaker was proof of dissipation, the symbol of a Drinker, and Babbitt disliked being known as a Drinker even more than he liked a Drink. (8.2.49)
It's kind of funny how much Babbitt's view of himself is not backed up by reality. For example, the guy thinks that even though he constantly drinks alcohol, that doesn't make him a capital-d Drinker… because he doesn't own an alcohol-related utensil. This is like someone saying, "I'm not a chocoholic (even though I eat a supersized bag of M&Ms every day) because I don't own a Mexican cocoa-whisk."
The cocktail filled him with a whirling exhilaration behind which he was aware of devastating desires—to rush places in fast motors, to kiss girls, to sing, to be witty. (8.2.53)
As soon as alcohol hits his lips, Babbitt can feel himself craving speed and excitement. He wants to act like he's young and beautiful all of a sudden. Unfortunately, this escape from reality only makes it that much harder for Babbitt to accept the fact that most of his life is pretty boring.
"The thing that worries me is that a lot of these guys will take to cocaine." (8.2.79)
At the social club, one of Babbitt's buddies says that he's worried about prohibition in the United States because he thinks it'll just make people turn to harder drugs like cocaine. After all, you can't expect a huge number of people to suddenly stop wanting to numb their brains.
But the cocktails waned, the seekers dropped back into cautious reality. (8.2.100)
Everything seems fun at the Babbitts' party as long as there's alcohol floating around. But once the drinks are gone, everyone becomes more guarded about what they say. It's a sad commentary on how people have a tough time opening up to one another without alcohol.
"And don't try to see him. I've had the doctor give him a shot of morphine, so he'll sleep." (22.1.22)
Just like that, the doctor gives Paul Riesling a shot of morphine to help him sleep. Back in 1922, you see, people weren't exactly that well-informed about how addictive and dangerous morphine could be, so they just dished it out like aspirin. Booze, on the other hand, was illegal. Go figure.