Non-fiction – paperback; 1st Back Bay Ed; 280 pages; 1995.
I am a sucker for memoirs, especially if they’re written by “proper writers”, whether authors or journalists. It’s not so much that these particular people lead more interesting lives than others, but they can write about them so much better than anyone else. Essentially, they use the skills of novelists and reporters to turn their life stories into highly readable and entertaining narratives.
I was particularly keen to read journalist and novelist Pete Hamill’s memoir A Drinking Life because I knew so little about the man. I suspect Americans have a better handle on him given he’s been the editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, but I only discovered him when I read his 2002 novel Forever last year. I thought that book was excellent and on an excursion to New York last November I went on a mission to track down his memoir, expecting that I’d probably have to order it online at some point. But, alas, the first store I went into — Barnes & Noble in the Time Warner Centre — had it in stock. I felt like I’d found gold at the end of the rainbow!
Needless to say, it took me almost a year to dig it out of the ever-growing To Be Read pile, but the wait was worth it.
A New Yorker’s memoir
Given the title, I had expected A Drinking Life to be a story about Hamill’s battle with booze, but that’s not really what this memoir is about. While he discusses his relationship with alcohol very frankly throughout the book, from his first taste of beer as a child to his teenage discovery that drink could let him “get rid of something”, this is not solely an alcoholic’s confessional.
It’s actually a memoir of a lifetime New Yorker, and, more crucially, reveals how a poor working-class kid from Brooklyn managed to carve out a successful writing career despite several setbacks, poor decisions and a fondness for women and drink.
At times it reminded me very much of Betty Smith’s much-loved American classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, particularly Hamill’s account of growing up in Brooklyn the oldest of seven children (his parents were Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland), but it’s also a firsthand account of what it was like to experience everything from the Great Depression (Hamill was born in 1935) to the Korean War, McCarthyism to the assassination of President Kennedy.
A forthright account
What makes this particular memoir so vivid and interesting to read, however, is Hamill’s brutal frankness and the candid nature of his writing. He never shies away from being totally honest, even if it portrays him in a bad light.
His relationship with his father is often painful to read, because he makes it clear that he loved his father, a one-legged drunk, but did not feel that his father loved him in return — he was constantly seeking approval that never came. It was only when he left school at 16, moved out of the family home and took a job as sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that he gained some measure of paternal respect. This was helped, in part, by working alongside men that knew his father and who told him tales about Billy Hamill’s strength, determination and brains.
Pity allowed me to see him as man, instead of a father who could not play the role that my childish imagination and need had assigned him. I could see him in Belfast as a boy, running streets and fields with his twin brother, trying to eat in a kitchen with a dozen other kids, listening to commands from his own father. […] In a new way Billy Hamill came alive to me, a person cobbled together from sparse facts and my imagination, and in that summer of my own defeat, I pitied him, with the glibness of a child, and felt the permanent grieving hurt in all his black silences.
Strength from drink
But despite Hamill’s vow that “I didn’t want to be like my father. I didn’t want to be a drunk”, he discovers that drinking gives him “strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true”. It is the drink that sustains him through a myriad number of changes in life direction: he studies art, has an affair with a much older nude model while dating a “nice girl” his own age, flees to Mexico City with a male friend to study painting and writing, and later returns to New York, as a fugitive, to work as a graphic designer. In 1960 he makes the dramatic switch from pictures to words, and becomes a reporter for the New York Post.
He later marries, has two children, and travels the world in pursuit of stories and good times. When his marriage breaks down, mainly because of his drinking, he decides to quit the bottle for good. It was a move that produced another dramatic turn in his life, because he met and later moved in with actress Shirley MacLaine, and developed a career writing fiction, including novels and TV scripts.
According to Hamill’s own website, A Drinking Life was on the New York Times list for 13 weeks when it was published in 1995. I’m not surprised. It’s a terrific account of a life well-lived, even if much of that life was marred by drink. You certainly don’t need to have read any of his novels to appreciate the wonderful story recounted here, but it will no doubt encourage you to seek out his other work. It’s emotional, forthright, funny and informative: what more could you ask for in a memoir?