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Book Review: A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill

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There is a funny story that accompanies the review of this book. As I recently went to get a pedicure, the man (yes, man) who was rubbing my feet asked me, “Do you like to drink?” I paused from my book and thought how the night before I had had a glass of red wine. Was it obvious? Then the man pointed to the book I was reading: A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill. “Oh,” I said, feeling relief. “No, this is not that kind of book,” I said. “I mean, it’s about the author growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and World War II, and like, how he started drinking, sort of…” I prattled. Then I finally added the point about it not being a self-help book.

The man smiled and went back to my pedicure. I thought of explaining more, but I reasoned that I shouldn’t bother, for I’d already mumbled and stumbled my way through a half-assed attempt at a conversation. The funny part about it is that A Drinking Life is no doubt what one would call a “manly” book, loaded with machismo and drinking and fucking women, and here was I, at a nail salon, getting a pedicure by a man, trying to explain it. Anyhow, even if you don’t find this ironic, A Drinking Life is an excellent memoir that is not “self help” in any way. I only mention this because it seems like most memoirs today are whiny and self-pitying, and A Drinking Life is a work of literature. Actually, I mentioned that to the guy while he rubbed my feet. “This is literature,” I said. And it really is.

Were I to compare A Drinking Life to another work, perhaps a claim could be made that this is the male version of Betty Smith’s great novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where both the fictional Francie Nolan and the real life Pete Hamill grow up in poor Brooklyn, both have Irish ancestry and have alcoholic fathers. Though both writers share similar biographical details, their writing is quite different, where Smith’s novel is rich, poetic and detailed, Hamill’s memoir is spare, prosaic and matter of fact. He is journalistic in his narrative approach, and this should be no surprise since he worked several decades as a reporter.

What is so rewarding about reading A Drinking Life is that the book does not drown the reader with the standard cliché, but instead focuses on the cultural aspect of why men, and especially Irish men, turn to drink. He argues that in order to examine this, he needed to first examine his childhood, and while the title does reveal the focus of the book, it’s not the core of the book, which never deviates from Hamill the man. Nowhere in A Drinking Life does Hamill beg the readers for sympathy—his poor childhood and the events that resulted because of it simply just are. Yet it is clear that despite these struggles, Hamill was still able to enjoy his childhood for what it was. He knows how to phrase things memorably, thus allowing the moment to be what it is, rather than trying to force sentiment upon the reader. For example, Hamill does an outstanding job of conveying the way young boys speak to one another. When approaching a boy that he’d previously gotten into a fight with, the scene goes:

"I didn’t want the fight Frankie, I said. You started it.
"Fuck it, he said sadly, with a little wave of his hand.
"Let’s forget about it, I said.
"He looked at me as if knowing that he would never forget about it and neither would I.
"Come on, I said. We’ll go read comics.
"He stared at me for a long moment and then got up, and we walked off to look at stories of heroes and perils in a simpler world."

The exchange is straight and to the point, but Hamill conveys not only the underlining emotion that exists between these two boys, but when arranged together, the scene offers a nice poetic moment which is noted in the last line. Although the chapters are short and share some structure commonalities with Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, overall, Hamill is not as poetic as Connell. But this isn’t a criticism, merely an acknowledgement of what Hamill is as a writer. Rather, he seems to resemble the prose version of Robert Altman’s films, when Altman is at his best.

Hamill is also able to structure his sentences in harmony with his moments of youthful excitement and desire, and he does so in an artful way:

“This wasn’t the Paris of Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises. But it was bright and gay and full of painters and music and beautiful women and I wanted it.”

Hamill comes across as likeable and relatable, down to earth and insightful. Readers will follow him through his self-examination process, where he longs to be a cartoonist, though realizes, (because he owns the needed self-awareness), that he does not have the talent to ever be great at it. Mediocrity is just not satisfying for him, and so he directs his energy towards writing, an area where his talent is obvious. Yet with the myriad of bad prose and poetry being published today, one has to wonder why these bad writers don’t question their own lacking talents the way Hamill could.

When Hamill takes up an interest in books, he claims:

“To be sure, the idea of the Library alarmed me. Those thousands of books seemed to look down upon me with a wintry disdain. They were adult; they knew what I did not know; they were, in a collective way, the epitome of the unknowable, full of mystery and challenge and the most scary thing of all, doubt.”

His insight is evident when he refers to the books as “adult,” in contrast to himself, who is only a boy, and how the books “look down” upon him from their shelves both because he is young and they, as objects, know more than he. Hamill has the necessary mindful child’s eye, which questions what it is like to have an object be smarter than a blood and bone human being.

Hamill no doubt comes across as a “man’s man,” and my only criticism is that I wish the last third of the book (covering his marriage and adult years) could have been longer than it was, for it’s not just a book about drinking, but a book about a life, and a man amid his ambitions, his future and his past. A Drinking Life is a slice of Americana at its best.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Victor Lana

    I really enjoyed your review. Pete Hamill is a great writer, and as a New Yorker, I’ve been fortunate over the years to read his daily column. Now, I look forward to reading this book.