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A Drinking Life: A Memoir.

The New York newspaper columnist, novelist and short-story writer Pete Hamill stopped drinking twenty years ago. In the last year of his "drinking life," another big-boozing writer got drunk at a party in Iowa and tried to call Hamill in New York at one of his favorite hangouts, the Lion's Head Bar in Greenwich Village. Hamill wasn't there, but the drunken caller left a message with the bartender: "Pete Hamill is the most overrated writer in America--tell him I said so!" This outburst was occasioned by someone at the party expressing admiration for a book of Hamill's, with no mention of anything by the drunk. What an outrage!

The besotted caller's behavior, along with his message, was so offensive that his hostess at the party in Iowa City yanked the phone out of the wall (this was before the days of plug-in-phones, so wiring was involved) to prevent the drunk from making further gratuitous lonng-distance insults charged to her phone bill. The drunk awoke the next day with a splitting hangover and, even more painful, the realization that his literary ire was nothing more than jealousy of Hamill for having the effrontery not only to write good novels but also (as if that weren't enough) to turn out highly regarded newspaper columns--and in New York, no less, where all the action was, and where the drunk was not!

I know, because I was the drunk. I stopped drinking ten years ago, so Hamill has a decade of seniority in sobriety. We come from very different backgrounds (Irish Brooklyn, WASP Indiana), but we share many of the same experiences of the "drinking life" as well as the writing life (the two were inseparable in our era) of the post-Hemingway American writer. I felt at times during this book that I was reading my own story, and so will many others. This is not just about Pete Hamill's seduction by booze but about a tragic tradition, one whose grisly effects are foretold in the introduction, the author explains that he started writing his memoir "when some of my friends from the drinking life began to die. They were decent, talented, generous and humane. But as they approached the end, physically ruined by decades of drinking, I remembered more of their good times than they did. In a way, this book is about them too."

And it's about my own friends from the drinking life who have died (two in the past year) and are dying, unable to break the pattern, stop the self-poisoning ritual. It's about you and/or your own friends in the drinking life, and countless others we don't know who even now are pouring it on, and in; drowning.

This book isn't just about drinking--it is A Life, in the best autobiographical sense. But the title is apt, for as Hamill explains, "From almost the beginning of awareness, drinking was a part of my life; there is no way I could tell this story of the drinking without telling the story of the life." Or vice versa. When Pete was not yet 8 years old his father, Billy, an Irish drinker, took him along to a place called Gallagher's, where he entered for the first time "the tight, dark, amber-colored wool-smelling world of a saloon." His father sang a song about Paddy McGinty's goat, while the men cheered and hooted, and drank their whisky and beer: "This is where men go, I thought; this is what men do."

An avid reader of the comics, young Pete dreamed of being a cartoonist, like his hero Milton Caniff, who drew the "Steve Canyon" strip. For most American kids of our pre-TV generation, the comics provided not only entertainment but education, like "the lessons of the magic potion." Hamill recalls that "the comics taught me, and million of other kids, that even the weakest human being could take a drink and be magically transformed into someone smarter, bigger, braver. All you needed was the right drink." He also learne the transforming word "Shazam," and thought: "Maybe words, like potions, were also capable of magic."

On the day World War II ended, Pete's father celebrated with other men of their Brooklyn neighborhood at the bars, and his 10-year-old son found him lying drunk on the stairs of their apartment building. Billy Hamill's boy learned that "there was a celebration and you got drunk. There was a victory and you got drunk. . . . Part of being a man was to drink."

Young Pete listened to his father spin romantic tales of Prohibition days with his cronies, speaking in a roguish way of gin mills and rumdums, reciting the lore that Protestants had passed the stupid law banning booze to stymie the appetites of Irish immigrants. "Drinking started to seem as natural to real life as breathing," Pete remembers, and in his last year in grammar school he started drinking beer with buddies on the street. "For the first time I began to experience a transformation that would later become familiar: the violent images grew larger in my head and everything else got smaller. It was as if the beer were editing out the world, eliminating other elements, such as weather, light, form, beauty."

In high school Pete listened to the jukebox on dates, hearing love songs and "two glorious celebrations of drinking" that pulsed through my own adolescence: "Don't Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me" and "Cigarees and Whuskey and Wild, Wild Women." Pete started drinking beer when he was trying to make out with his girlfriend and when hanging out with his pals, chewing gum or brushing his teeth to fool his mother when he came home. Now drinking "was an integral part of sexuality, easing entrance to its dark and mysterious treasure chambers," and much more: "the sacramental binder of friendships," as well as "the reward for work, the fuel of celebration, the consolation for death or defeat." Though he didn't know it at the time, "I had entered the drinking life."

At the same age, I was hooked on cherry cokes, a syrupy soda fountain concoction I guzzled at my father's pharmacy in Indianapolis. The only drinking I witnessed growing up was at Christmas, when after a family dinner my father and the other male relatives stealthily assembled in the kitchen and passed around a pint of Kentucky bourbon, each taking a generous swig from the bottle, while the ladies chattered in the living room, pretending to be oblivious (there were no "cocktails" for ladines in that time and place). The only time I ever saw my father get drunk was at the first cocktail party our family ever attended--or even heard about, except in the movies. Afterward my mother barred the door so my father had to spend the night on Grandma Irenee's dining room table next door, an experience that evidently left such a mark on his psyche as well as his spine that he never got drunk again.

Compared with Hamil's Brooklyn Irish upbringing, I led a sheltered life in WASPy Indianapolis. I never had to "tremble with fear" as Hamill did when gangs of Italian toughs stalked into the neighborhood; the only Italians were our friendly neighbors next door, the Pinella family, who offered us our first "pizza pie," an exotic delicacy in 1945. The most common outfit for adolescent males on our block was a Boy Scout uniform; the only zoot suits I saw were in the movies.

Working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to pay his own way and take pressure off the family finances, Hamill grew up early. I was lucky in my sheltered life, the only child of indulgent parents, occasionally serving as a soda jerk in my father's drug store, then landing a part-time job I loved as high school sports stringer for The Indianapolis Star. I took for granted the gift of spending all my spare time reading and writing, or horsing around with the saddle-shoed, low-slung-corduroy guys of the popular crowd and our cashmere girlfriends. But I'd have traded it all for one element of Hamill's otherwise harder life: a 41-year-old art-school model named Laura.

Pursuing his dream of becoming a cartoon creator, 15-year-old Pete enrolled in the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in Manhattan to take a course in drawing and anatomy from Burne Hogarth, "the artist who used to draw Tarzan." Hamill met the woman who served as the first life model for the class on a break in the hall, and she took him back to her two-apartment apartment on Tenth Street, initiating him into the mysteries of sex. Imaginative and wise, she served as teacher, mentor, lover: "Laura always had something new for me." The Laura narrative reads like a novella, a quintessential young man's fantasy of expert erotica, guided by a kind, accomplished instructor who refused only words of love or promises for the future.

Laura was mentor in more than sex, an artist herself who critiqued Pete's work and opened for him a wider world than comic-strip drawing, showing him art books and reproductions she'd torn from magazines: Picasso and Matisse, George Grosz, George Bellows, Ben Shahn, Orozco. She held up a copy of Art News and told him how to use "magazines like this": "Just tear out the pictures," she advised. "The writing is usually the most amazing bullshit."

A wise counselor, she also told him to read The Art Spirit, and Hamil learned from its author, Robert Henri, that You can do anything you want to do. What is rare is this actual wanting to do a specific thing: wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you . . . I mean it.

Laura disappeared completely one day, leaving her apartment empty, without a note or a trace, never to be found again by her pupil--or forgotten.

What Robert Henri called the "specific thing" switched from drawing and painting to writing for Hamill, and he "discovered Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the myth of the Lost Generation." So did I. For both of us, as for so many young men and women of our generation, this potent, romantic discovery carried a built-in blessing and curse. Malcolm Cowley, chronicler of the lit hit luminaries of the twenties, described the Hemingway heroes' common trait in Exile's Return: "They drink early and late; they consume enough beer, wine, anis, grapp and Fundador to put them all into alcoholic wards, if they were ordinary mortals; but drinking seems to have the effect on them of a magic potion."

The same could be said of Fitzgerald's characters, and reading about the Lost Generation, Hamill "learned that drinking could be something more than mere fuel for a wild night out. It could be a huge fuck you to Authority."

A political act! Those Prohibition-defying heroes of ours were rebels, and so were we in the fifties: "Drinking became the medium of my revolt against the era of Eisenhower. Drinking was a refusal to play the conformist game, a denial of the stupid rules of a bloodless national ethos." We exalted and excused it as a protest against the dull gray flannel symbols of middle-class, middle-of-the-road malaise described in powerful critiques of the time like William Whyte's The Organization Man, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, C. Wright Mill's White Collar, Alan Harrington's Life in the Crystal Palace (which originate in The Nation). Alcoholic Sinclair Lewis had Main Street to rebel against, we had Madison Avenue--as if we were driven to drink by sociological analysis!

Hamill returned from the Navy for a stint at Mexico City College studying art on the G.I. Bill, finding "thee was drinking everywhere . . . parties bound us together. In some ways, it was like the navy." Hamill had started writing short stories, but he still thought of himself primarily as an artist, so when he returned to the Village he "eased into the packed bar of the Cedar Tavern, where the painters did their drinking." At the same time I was a mile or so west at the White Horse Tavern, where the writers did their drinking. Bars are self-segregated then by artistic preference (only Abstract Expressionists drank at the Cedar; a representational painter would have to get oiled on the Upper East Side).

Despite our different choice of art forms (and thus taverns), I was having the same experience Hamill describes:

Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness. I never thought of myself as a drunk; I was, I thought, like many others--a drinker. I certainly didn't think of myself as an alcoholic. But I was already having trouble in the morning after remembering the details of the night before. It didn't seem to matter; everybody else was doing the same thing. We made little jokes about having a great time last night--I think. And we'd begun to reach for the hair of the dog.

Frustrated at an ad agency, Hamill wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post about "my generation" (a few years earlier I had written such a piece for The Nation) that earned him an interview with editor James Wechsler and a tryout at the paper, working for a young assistant night city editor named Ed Kosner (now editor of Esquire). In the city room of the Post, Hamill "found a life I wanted." He also found "everybody in the business was drinking then, the lovely older woman on night rewrite, stars and editors, Murray Kempton and the copyboys." Only Al Aronowitz, "a great reporter, a wonderful writer, and a lovely man," didn't drink, "so I saw little of him after work." Hamill says, "I drank in the morning when I worked nights, and at night when I worked days." In the years to come he wrote a popular column (starting in 1965), took leaves to work on novels and stories, became a regular at the Lion's Head bar in the Village, married a nondrinker, fathered two children, later got divorced, continued turning out successful work and justified his drinking with a refrain I crooned myself: "If I was able to function, to get the work done, there was no reason to worry about drinking. It was part of living, one of the rewards."

It was not until 1972 that he began to notice little signs of deterioration.

Typing a columnn or a script I would misspell simple words, not just once, but eight or nine times. Sometimes my fingers felt like gloves filled with water and typing was a plodding effort of physical labor.

My hands trembled too, and there were odd twitches in my legs, little spasms of protest, or I'd wake up with no feeling in my legs. I shook off most of these signals. I was just getting older, I told myself.

He was 37.

Hamill began to observe himself like a character in a movie, wondering if he was really living his life or playing a role. At a New Year's Eve party with Shirly MacLaine, he looked in a mirror at the bar where they were sitting and saw his hand trembling as he lit a cigarette and wondered if that would be in the camera shot in the movie he imagined being filmed of his actions. Later that night he looked into the bottom of his glass at the vodka-soaked lime and said to himself: I'm never goiing to do this again.

He didn't. He vowed, I will live my life from now on, I will not perform it. Sober, his senses returning, he "began to listen to music again," enjoyed walking in the cold, eyes blurring in the wind, lungs swelling with fresh air, and discovered he "liked reading myself to sleep a lot more than falling into a swollen stupor."

Only when you stop drinking do you become aware not only how prevalent it is in our society but how much it is a ritual of belonging: "Dinner parties were problems because I was always explaining myself." I remember once being asked by a concerned hostess when I said I didn't want any wine at dinner if "anything is wrong."

There are other discoveries: "Now I saw more clearly what drinking did to people. In Hollywood, I met old directors and forgotten screenwriters and unemployed actors: all broken by booze."

By the end of his first year of sobriety, Hamill found that temptation grew weaker, and one day gratefully realized that "somehow, I'd replaced the habit of drinking with the habit of nondrinking."

Hamill now joins a new literary tradition of American writers who stopped, and continued to write, giving the lie to the deadly myth that booze brings the muse. Kate Braverman, Ivan Gold, Peter Benchley and Raymond Carver are among the growing numbers of authors who sobered up to write powerfully in fiction and/or fact of the sad, debilitating, wasteful scourage of alcohol, rather than glamorize it in the manner of the Lost Generation. Hamill's book joins this new literature that eloquently shows a "drinking life" isn't the way to a writing life, or any productive life at all.
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Author:Wakefield, Dan
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 7, 1994
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