‘A Drinking Life’ by Pete Hamill

ADrinkingLife

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?

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9 thoughts on “‘A Drinking Life’ by Pete Hamill

  1. That sounds really good – and I’ve never heard of him. I’m reminded from your review of Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries – similarly totally lacking in self-justification perhaps. I shall seek this one out – a great review

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  2. That really does sound good. I’ve had that book on my bookmooch wishlist for a while. Forever was very good and I’ve got North River on the TBR pile and Downtown: My Manhattan on its way from an American moocher. I’m looking forward to digging into both.

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  3. He’s a wonderful writer, Tom. He concentrates on his childhood and his time as a wayward youth, rather than as a journo/husband/father, which probably explains why it’s categorised as a “memoir” rather than an “autobiography”, He’s got quite an extensive back catalogue of fiction books, but I’ve only read the one, although have two more in my reading pile.

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  4. Yes, I was thinking of you when I wrote this, as I knew you’d loved “Forever” as much as I did. He had quite an interesting childhood, I must say, and was a bit of a womaniser in his day — but he recalls everything with such brutal frankness you can’t help but forgive him for the error of his ways!

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  5. kimbofo: Sen. Kennedy’s death yesterday moves me to ask, does Hamill talk about the Kennedy’s at all in this book? I know he was a bit of a family favorite in the days when it was okay for a journalist to be that and there was speculation about just what exactly his relationship with Jackie was. Obviously, I’ve never read the book but do know that Hamill can write from the examples that I have read.

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  6. Really? Wow. I didn’t know about the Jackie K. thing. He certainly does not mention it in the book (that I can recall), but he does say how upset he was at JFK’s death.
    Prompted by your comment, I did a Google search and ended up discovering this rather good article, published in 1994:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/24/garden/at-home-with-pete-hamill-on-background.html?pagewanted=all
    (Sadly, it reveals his daughter had been indicted for murder of her infant son. I haven’t been able to find anything to suggest what happened next.)

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  7. I just discovered Hamill this year, and agree with your reactions to “A Drinking Life.” As you suggest, the title is a bit misleading, as for me it was more about coming of age times ~three. I also found that he lives near me, and attended a session he did at Barnes and Noble TriBeCa where he interviewed Jerry Robinson (creator of The Joker in in the original Batman series). Hamill wanted at first to be a cartoonist, and the love the two of them had for each other as artists was profoundly demonstrated in the hour that passed in minutes. I’ve also read “Downtown” – if you are interested in the history of New York told from the vantage point of a reporter, writer, and insightful voyeur, read it and walk the streets and visit the places he describes.

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