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Authors: Pete Hamill

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A Drinking Life

PRAISE FOR A D
RINKING
L
IFE

“In straightforward candor, with unflinching staccato, Hamill shows us that his fate was sealed from the moment of his birth.”

—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Pete Hamill has a story to tell, a good one, and doesn’t waste a word doing it.”

—Elmore Leonard

“Pete Hamill’s thirty years of writing come to fruition
in A Drinking Life.
It is constructed seamlessly, with the pacing and eye for telling detail learned as a novelist and the hard, spare prose of a fine journalist.”


New York Times Book Review

“A Drinking Life
is much more than the story of Pete Hamill and the bottle. It’s also a classic American tale of a young person’s struggle to expand his horizons without doing violence to his personal identity.”

—Entertainment Weekly

“This vibrantly written memoir is as much a recollection of Hamill’s Brooklyn childhood and his coming of age as a writer as it is the story of his alcohol abuse…. He’s written this book—and lived his life — with gusto and grace, and without apology.”


Philadelphia Inquirer

“It’s hard to change a family culture in one generation, and it’s even harder to find a writer who can take us along on this journey. In
A Drinking Life,
Pete Hamill does both. For any men trying to become the fathers they never had, and all readers pioneering in new emotional territory, this book is a gift of honesty, courage — and very good writing.”

—Gloria Steinem

“A Drinking Life
is a vivid report of a journey to the edge of self-destruction. It is tough-minded, brimming with energy and unflinchingly honest. Mr. Hamill may lament what drink did to his memories, but to judge from this account he never lost the best of them.”

—New York Times

“From a vantage point of two decades later, Hamill has written not a moralistic confession but a joyously honest testament to the drinking life, to its rewards no less than to its costs, which finally became too high.”


New York Sunday Newsday

“This is an honest, thoughtful, richly detailed memoir… that belongs on the same shelf with Jack London’s
John Barleycorn.”

— E. L. Doctorow

“A Drinking Life
is Pete Hamill at the top of his game, which puts him way up there with the best we have. If Scott Fitzgerald had been able to read it sixty years ago, who knows, we might have had half-a-dozen more
Gatsbys
and
Tender Is the Nights.
Meanwhile, let’s count our blessings with
A Drinking Life.”

—Budd Schulberg

“Sad but never maudlin, tender but unsentimental, hard-bitten yet revealing,
A Drinking Life
is an unblinking look back at a life molded by a time and place that no longer exist. Hamill’s re-creation of New York of the ’30, ’40s, and ’50s is bracingly evocative. A pleasure to read.”


Hartford Courant

“An affectionate, accurate appraisal of a period — the ’40s and ’50s—when taverns were to working people what country clubs and health joints have become to so many today. It’s about growing up and growing old, working and trying to work, within the culture of drink.”

—Mike Barnicle in, the
Boston Sunday Globe

“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 condition…. Hamill’s book joins a new literature that eloquently shows a ‘drinking life’ isn’t the way to a writing life, or to any life at all.”

—Dan Wakefield in
The Nation

“Hamill has written an extraordinary and intimate reflection on the roots of his character and his conscience and his imagination, and Pete Hamill being who he is, that is consequential reading.”

—Pete Dexter

“Hamill consistently defies the squeamish objectivity of American journalism by writing explicitly about what he feels. And he does it not in the detached manner of a professional observer, but in his own strong, plainspoken voice.”


Utne Reader

“Pete Hamill has made a fine career of covering the news, but his own story is probably as remarkable as any other he’s written.
A Drinking Life
is startling in its candor, detail, and insight.”

— Carl Hiassen

“An astonishing achievement. I can’t recall reading anyone’s memories of the earliest years of life that pulled me into them more forcefully and convincingly than Pete Hamill’s. His choice of the particular incident, the precise moment, the exact feeling, illuminates so much about the time and place and people of his childhood and later years that it is breathtaking. He has written a beautiful book.”

—Joan Ganz Cooney

“Hamill re-creates a time extinct, a Brooklyn of trolley cars, Dodgers, pails of beer, and pals like No Toes Nocera. This is not a jeremiad condemning drink but a thoughtful, funny, street-smart reflection on its consequences.”


Publishers Weekly

“This moving memoir of a working-class kid coming of age simply demonstrates once again that Pete Hamill is in the first rank of American writers. It should be mandatory reading for every man (and woman), young or old.”

—Peter Maas

“The vivid and ultimately exhilarating account of the conquest of a dread affliction by a first-class writer.”

—Louis Auchincloss

“In creating this frank, often unflattering record of his personal struggles, Hamill has gone beyond simply remembering. He has also bestowed a form of immortality upon a neighborhood that now exists only in memory, dissolved by drugs, poverty, and suburban exoduses. With straightforward, two-fisted prose that is rarely maudlin, Hamill both honors and transcends his past.”

—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Pete Hamill… evokes a New York that exists today only in memory. Read it and you feel the asphalt sticking to your shoes in a summer stickball game and the cooling shower of an open fire hydrant, remember the disappointment of options foreclosed by a cruel economic determinism, taste the blessed booze that loosens the tongue and fuels the braggadocio that seems to offer the only escape from life’s pitiless demands. Pete Hamill did escape, his virtue… lost, but his humor intact, and the result is a memoir as sad and brash and funny and compelling as the city he loves.”

—John Gregory Dunne

“The story is compelling; the writing is lean. Hamill the man catches Hamill the aimless adolescent with powerful prose that arrives in short, powerful bursts. He can say in a paragraph what some writers—even good ones—can’t in less than a chapter.”

—American Journalism Review

Books by Pete Hamill

NOVELS

A Killing for Christ

The Gift

Dirty Laundry

Flesh and Blood

The Deadly Piece

The Guns of Heaven

Loving Women

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

The Invisible City

Tokyo Sketches

JOURNALISM

Irrational Ravings

Copyright © 1994 by Deidre Enterprises, Inc.

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at
www.HachetteBookGroup.com

First eBook Edition

ISBN: 978-0-316-05453-9

The “Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company” name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Contents

INTRODUCTION

I: DURING THE WAR

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

II: AFTER THE WAR

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

III: BREAKING OUT

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

IV: TO THE GATES OF EDEN

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

V: A DRINKING LIFE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

VI: DRY

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

For my sister, Kathleen

M
OST
of the people who helped make this book possible are mentioned in its pages; they also made my life possible. But in addition I would like to thank Bill Phillips of Little, Brown for his endless patience and superb editing; Lynn Nesbit, for helping make the book happen; my daughters, Adriene and Deirdre, for allowing me to invade their privacy; my secretary, Meri McCall, for holding off the demands of the world with good humor; and, of course, my wife, Fukiko Aoki, for reasons that are beyond listing.

— P.H.

INTRODUCTION

T
HIS IS A BOOK
about my time in the drinking life. It tells the story of the way one human being became aware of alcohol, embraced it, struggled with it, was hurt by it, and finally left it behind. The tale has no hero.

The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards: confidence for the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love. From almost the beginning of awareness, drinking was a part of my life; there is no way that I could tell the story of the drinking without telling the story of the life. Much of that story was wonderful. In the snug darkness of saloons, I learned much about being human and about mastering a craft. I had, as they say, a million laughs. But those grand times also caused great moral, physical, or psychological damage to myself and others. Some of that harm was probably permanent. There is little to be done now but take responsibility. No man’s past can be changed; it’s a fact, like red hair.

More than twenty years have gone by since I stopped drinking. My father died at eighty; my mother lives on. I’m happily married to a wonderful woman and work even harder than I did when young. But life doesn’t get easier when you walk away from the culture of drink; you simply live it with greater lucidity.

I started writing this book 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.

New York City

December 1993

I

DURING THE WAR

Little enough I know of your struggle,

although you come to me more and more,

free of that heavy body armour

you tried to dissolve with alcohol,

a pale face staring in dream light

like a fish’s belly

upward to life.

— John Montague,“Stele for a Northern Republican”

1

A
T THE BEGINNING
of my remembering, I am four years old and we are living on the top floor of a brick building on a leafy street in Brooklyn, a half block from Prospect Park. Before that place and that age, there is nothing. But in those remembered rooms are my mother, my younger brother Tommy, and me. It is the winter of 1939. I remember the kitchen, with its intricately patterned blue-and-red linoleum floors, and windows that opened into a garden where an elm tree rose higher than the house. The kitchen light was beautiful: suffused with a lemony green in summer, dazzling when winter snow garnished the limbs of the elm tree. I remember the smell of pine when my mother mopped the floors. I remember her whistling when she was happy, which was most of the time. I remember how tall she seemed then, and how shiny her brown hair was after she had washed it in the sink. And I remember my brother Tommy, two years younger than I, small and curly-haired and gentle. I don’t remember my father.

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