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A Drinking Life: A Memoir

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Rugged prose and a rare attention to telling detail have long distinguished Pete Hamill's unique brand of journalism and his universally well received fiction. Twenty years after his last drink, he examines the years he spent as a full-time member of the drinking culture. The result is A Drinking Life, a stirring and exhilarating memoir float is his most personal writing t Rugged prose and a rare attention to telling detail have long distinguished Pete Hamill's unique brand of journalism and his universally well received fiction. Twenty years after his last drink, he examines the years he spent as a full-time member of the drinking culture. The result is A Drinking Life, a stirring and exhilarating memoir float is his most personal writing to date. The eldest son of Irish immigrants, Hamill learned from his Brooklyn upbringing during the Depression and World War II that drinking was an essential part of being a man; he only had to accompany his father up the street to the warm, amber-colored world of Gallagher's bar to see that drinking was what men did. It played a crucial role in mourning the death of relatives or the loss of a job, in celebrations of all kinds, even in religion. In the navy and the world of newspapers, he learned that bonds of friendship, romance, and professional camaraderie were sealed with drink. It was later that he discovered that drink had the power to destroy those very bonds and corrode any writer's most valuable tools: clarity, consciousness, memory. It was almost too late when he left drinking behind forever. Neither sentimental nor self-righteous, this is a seasoned writer's vivid portrait of the first four decades of his life and the slow, steady way that alcohol became an essential part of that life. Along the way, he summons the mood of a time and a place gone forever, with the bittersweet fondness of a lifetime New Yorker. It is his best work yet.


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Rugged prose and a rare attention to telling detail have long distinguished Pete Hamill's unique brand of journalism and his universally well received fiction. Twenty years after his last drink, he examines the years he spent as a full-time member of the drinking culture. The result is A Drinking Life, a stirring and exhilarating memoir float is his most personal writing t Rugged prose and a rare attention to telling detail have long distinguished Pete Hamill's unique brand of journalism and his universally well received fiction. Twenty years after his last drink, he examines the years he spent as a full-time member of the drinking culture. The result is A Drinking Life, a stirring and exhilarating memoir float is his most personal writing to date. The eldest son of Irish immigrants, Hamill learned from his Brooklyn upbringing during the Depression and World War II that drinking was an essential part of being a man; he only had to accompany his father up the street to the warm, amber-colored world of Gallagher's bar to see that drinking was what men did. It played a crucial role in mourning the death of relatives or the loss of a job, in celebrations of all kinds, even in religion. In the navy and the world of newspapers, he learned that bonds of friendship, romance, and professional camaraderie were sealed with drink. It was later that he discovered that drink had the power to destroy those very bonds and corrode any writer's most valuable tools: clarity, consciousness, memory. It was almost too late when he left drinking behind forever. Neither sentimental nor self-righteous, this is a seasoned writer's vivid portrait of the first four decades of his life and the slow, steady way that alcohol became an essential part of that life. Along the way, he summons the mood of a time and a place gone forever, with the bittersweet fondness of a lifetime New Yorker. It is his best work yet.

30 review for A Drinking Life: A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jim Golden

    I was expecting more of a story about alcoholism and specific drunk events in Hamill's life. This is much more than a story about alcoholism, it is a story about Hamill's life, and alcohol just so happens to be pervasive throughout his childhood and adulthood. This is truly a complete picture of a man, of his boyhood in the Neighborhood, his family, marriage, his career, and alcohol touched every aspect of his life. Drinking was a constant throughout Pete's journey--a way to celebrate with frien I was expecting more of a story about alcoholism and specific drunk events in Hamill's life. This is much more than a story about alcoholism, it is a story about Hamill's life, and alcohol just so happens to be pervasive throughout his childhood and adulthood. This is truly a complete picture of a man, of his boyhood in the Neighborhood, his family, marriage, his career, and alcohol touched every aspect of his life. Drinking was a constant throughout Pete's journey--a way to celebrate with friends, a way to get through your anger, a way to be social in the Neighborhood, and a way to relate to your co-workers as a newspaperman. In Hamill's boyhood, it was a point of pride in the Neighborhood to be able to handle your liquor, not to be a drunk, but to keep a steady stream of drinking while trading jokes and stories and songs. Hamill doesn't push any kind of 12-step program in this book. He got sober on his own, in a snap, and he is unusual in his ability to do so. For this reason, for alcoholics looking to relate and to get some insight into their disease, I would recommend Caroline Knapp's book instead. For anyone looking for a fascinating memoir, a touching journey through life, and an inside look and the life of being a reporter, Hamill's memoir is highly recommended.

  2. 5 out of 5

    MJ Beauchamp

    How can you not love Pete Hamill...? In this remarkably candid memoir Hamill opens up about a lifelong love/hate relationship with alcohol, recounting his upbringing and dreams - all memories revolving around the power and comfort of a drink. I knew of Pete Hamill, newspaperman and writer with heart, reporting on his New York with only true love and soul, but I did not know the extent of it... A Drinking Life reveals the man and the boy behind the stories, in all his sensitivity and vulnerabilit How can you not love Pete Hamill...? In this remarkably candid memoir Hamill opens up about a lifelong love/hate relationship with alcohol, recounting his upbringing and dreams - all memories revolving around the power and comfort of a drink. I knew of Pete Hamill, newspaperman and writer with heart, reporting on his New York with only true love and soul, but I did not know the extent of it... A Drinking Life reveals the man and the boy behind the stories, in all his sensitivity and vulnerability. This is Hamill at his best...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Very well done Pete Hamill.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Moonkiszt

    I will live my life from now on, I will not perform it. This was the author's mantra as he took the final step to shake a lifelong drinking habit built since his nursery days (through his family's acceptance of drinking as a way of life, coping with all that comes in hard family living). Once he was beyond childhood, he, too, took it up as a way to cope. Pete Hamill's autobiography is contained in this book, and explains all the roads that led to his Rome - a drinking life - and how he got himsel I will live my life from now on, I will not perform it. This was the author's mantra as he took the final step to shake a lifelong drinking habit built since his nursery days (through his family's acceptance of drinking as a way of life, coping with all that comes in hard family living). Once he was beyond childhood, he, too, took it up as a way to cope. Pete Hamill's autobiography is contained in this book, and explains all the roads that led to his Rome - a drinking life - and how he got himself out of it. On the way there are beautiful descriptions of New York, his part of New York, and other places of the world. The yearnings of a young man in that world, wanting to draw, getting kicked down, rising up, trying a different direction within that desire. There are very graphic descriptions of all the devils of a young and growing human, and later unrestrained explorations. His way up in the newspaper world, journalism and writing at large is noted, landmark by landmark. His family members, his Irishness, his women and his children. All are here. I do so love his writing. He does such a great job of showing how becoming a drinker, a life drinker, was an act of loyalty and commitment to family, friend, tribe, local gang, region and was just a breath short of being a religion - it was a mantle, a jacket, a uniform. Then, just as deftly, he shows the day it stopped, ways and reasons which informed the moment on the day it stopped. Short of inserting some of those words here, I'm without means to pass it along to you, dear reader, this magic of his, and if I could would feel the cheat that is to you. I don't want to do anything that would prevent you from picking up this book and reading every word for yourself. Pete Hamill ends with the tests to his decision to stop drinking, and how he weathered them and I promise you satisfaction. A thirst quenched. Passing by my writing desk my daughter saw "A Drinking Life" and turned to me with her question face. . .she touched the book and said, "Why this?" as my drinking life was short-lived and long before she was a twinkle in the universe. I responded, "You should read it. It's a great book." I wished I had said more - that this book could help anyone who has suffered from addictions passed on through family tradition and habits carefully nurtured into them by people who were just barely surviving the world as they knew it. There is explicit language and sexual topics present in this book. . . if you are a shy type, well: You've been warned. As much as I enjoy Hamill's work, this did feel a little gratuitous and perhaps like he was bragging a little. Oh well, I get it. Bragging feels a lot different when you are ancient (as I am - and he is older than I) - it is more a wistful hope that all was truly as exciting as are the greatest-hits memory playbacks. If they were not, hopefully all participants are no longer in a position to be able to so testify. 4 sober and shining stars, over Brooklyn. Of course. Somewhere close to Paddy Mcginty's goat.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    I often think I can't remember that much about my childhood, comparatively speaking. You know those people who can provide you intricate detail of what they wore, and how they felt towards every teacher they ever had, and aesthetic details about houses? I thought I did not belong among them, until I read this book. It is probably very strange that a memoir set from World War Two onward, set in New York City, about a poor Irish American kid, would prompt such strong memories for me (and an identi I often think I can't remember that much about my childhood, comparatively speaking. You know those people who can provide you intricate detail of what they wore, and how they felt towards every teacher they ever had, and aesthetic details about houses? I thought I did not belong among them, until I read this book. It is probably very strange that a memoir set from World War Two onward, set in New York City, about a poor Irish American kid, would prompt such strong memories for me (and an identification) but it did, because Hamill and I share something in common, and I imagine you do too: the drinking life. And I don't mean that in the sense that I am (or you are) an alcoholic - although I do identify on the personal level, having had very close relationships with those who are - but also in the sense that I am part of a deeply entrenched Western drinking culture, one where celebrations, failures, monotonies, weekends, weekdays, can all reasonably be reacted to with a drink. When remembering childhood through the lens of drinking remarkable memories resurfaced, which I decline to share but acknowledge in my own way. And this is what is remarkable about this book: Hamill could have just opened the shame file, recounting only embarrassing and humiliating stories from the depths of his alcoholism (which he does do a bit of). If he had done that, this probably would have been a sad little book that we could have appropriately distanced ourselves from because, after all, we have never broken the door of a brothel and been fired at by Mexican police as a result. And, I mean, that's all interesting to read about, and the name dropping if fabulous (Norma Mailer et al). But, by making this a memoir from childhood, he illustrates a deeper issue with drinking culture that transcends the individual and he illustrates the ways in which such a culture facilitates, in some ways, the naturalisation and denial of alcoholism even in the face of its devastating consequences. In this way the realities of his particular struggle become more real and the decisions more understandable, at the same time that they stop being uniquely his. I will note two more things: firstly, the title should not have an 'A' at the front - it should just be Drinking Life because it is not just the story of a singular drinking life and then it would more readily have the double meaning of 'drinking life'; secondly, the accounts of alcoholics who have a flash of clarity and never drink again are really quite astounding to read (Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA is one such case)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chad

    What a bore! Mistakenly, I thought this book would be about growing up in an alcoholic household and how that experience molded the writer. Instead I got a simpleminded coming of age story in an all too familiar atmosphere: Brooklyn in the 40's. Man, the way some people write about their youth in New York, you'd think they all attended the same writing seminar. Dodgers - check. Abusive father- check. Angelic mother - check. Hanging on the corner with your friends - check. Playing stick ball in t What a bore! Mistakenly, I thought this book would be about growing up in an alcoholic household and how that experience molded the writer. Instead I got a simpleminded coming of age story in an all too familiar atmosphere: Brooklyn in the 40's. Man, the way some people write about their youth in New York, you'd think they all attended the same writing seminar. Dodgers - check. Abusive father- check. Angelic mother - check. Hanging on the corner with your friends - check. Playing stick ball in the street - check. Freaking lame - check. If you're going to write about this boring, shit, at least have your main character join the mafia or become a junkie at some point because these New York/Americana nuggets of nostalgia aren't valuable in themselves. Honestly, I thought I was reading the novel to A Bronx Tale for the first seventy five pages... except A Bronx Tale was never a novel, and this piece of shit didn't even have any mafia dudes in it. This was a lazy memoir. Period. We've all heard this story before, except this one doesn't end, it just keeps masturbating about stupid, boring shit which might be important to the writer, but is really dull for the reader (unless you get a hard-on for candy, warm popcorn and baseball - oooh whoopee!). Let's put it this way, unless you grew up in NY during the war, you might just want to throw this book in the fireplace. So, when the story fails the reader, you delve into the narrative, right? Wrong. Hamill's writing is so plain, so goddamn simple, you'd think you were reading the directions for a lawnmower. And the story... or whatever you call it... Jesus. Get to the point, man. I couldn't wait till the writer lost his virginity or got hit by a car so I could stop reading about dumb baseball games and candy and dull American pastimes. Shit, James Joyce made Dublin sound like a beautiful grotesque fantasy - that's writing - fifty pages into The Dubliners and you're in tears. Hamill's version of Brooklyn is about as dramatic as a bad HBO movie with Shia Lebouf. Honestly, I'm tired of New Yorkers claiming their adolescence was somehow richer and more special than everyone else's. There are so many NY writers spouting off about these kind of memories with a gusto and arrogance that makes my skin crawl. Give me some context. Give me something dangerous or interesting. Christ. I'll take Less Than Zero's coke fueled Los Angeles over this hokum any day of the week. Stories like this make me proud of being a Los Angelino, where sports doesn't govern our lives, danger lurks in the most unexpected places and existentialism is not just a philosophy, but a damn reality. We encounter the worst part of the human character from the moment we're born in this town. We have to uproot ourselves from the shallow graves of rich junkies, gang members, empty streets, crowded freeways, Hollywood assholes. That's context. That's conflict! Yeah, we might not be as deep and wise as New Yorkers, but we're also not as sanctimonious. God, this book pissed me off.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Roy

    My dad gave me this book because it resonated with him and his life. He was barely one-year-old for V-E day, and he grew up in Harlem, not Brooklyn, so his life wasn’t in lock step with Hamill’s Drinking Life, but there were similarities. Both went to Catholic school, drank in the same bars, found early solace in the public library, and hated Cardinal Spellman. Like most boys in New York in the 50s they ran up against, and with, gangs. For this and other reasons, when it was time for my dad to r My dad gave me this book because it resonated with him and his life. He was barely one-year-old for V-E day, and he grew up in Harlem, not Brooklyn, so his life wasn’t in lock step with Hamill’s Drinking Life, but there were similarities. Both went to Catholic school, drank in the same bars, found early solace in the public library, and hated Cardinal Spellman. Like most boys in New York in the 50s they ran up against, and with, gangs. For this and other reasons, when it was time for my dad to raise a kid, he left the city. Like my father, Hamill has great stories and fondness for the difficulties he had while growing up in New York. They both remember more about their early years, than I do, and though there were difficult times, they had adventures in a city and time that had fewer restrictions and more tribal segregation. Some of these tales sound only good in the re-telling. One thing I’ve come to realize is that an “adventure” is something that was uncomfortable-to-painful at the time, but makes for a great story. Hamill had a few adventures in his time, which makes me jealous I haven’t lived out in the world more, but then again, I don’t think I would ever follow his footsteps to Mexico, Paris, or even Bay Ridge. There is also a certain Forest Gump quality to this memoir. Famous people and events happen in a flurry. It seems like people were more accessible in a pre-information age time. Surely I’ve lived a quieter life as I’ve never been in a situation to party with the Rolling Stones or Jack Kerouac. One important difference between my father’s upbringing and Hamill’s was that my dad didn’t grow up with a drunk. A Drinking Life illustrates how corrosive alcoholism can be, even if you ignore the cirrhosis. I can’t imagine a life with someone so absent and useless as Billy Hamill. When you live a drinking life, you miss out on the rest of your life. Hamill’s life of drinking did not lead him to the expected depraved-low-point. In fact he takes his last drink during a swinging New Year’s Eve event. He stops drinking because he doesn’t like what it has done to his life and the lives around him. He stops drinking to embrace life and to be clear of thought. He stops drinking so that he can remember all that he has done.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    My friend Sally thinks Anna Karenina should be called Levin; I always thought you might as well complain that Moby Dick isn't about the whale. I think I have found, however, the winner of the least apt title: this book has almost nothing to do with the author's drinking problem. It's a memoir, and the struggle with drink is no more a thread to his story than is the fact of his Irish ancestry. It's an interesting book, written in a forceful, journalistic style, but there are some questions it rai My friend Sally thinks Anna Karenina should be called Levin; I always thought you might as well complain that Moby Dick isn't about the whale. I think I have found, however, the winner of the least apt title: this book has almost nothing to do with the author's drinking problem. It's a memoir, and the struggle with drink is no more a thread to his story than is the fact of his Irish ancestry. It's an interesting book, written in a forceful, journalistic style, but there are some questions it raises in my mind about memoir. Question 1: How do people remember all these things? I, for one, can hardly remember my childhood, so how is it that these people writing memoirs can describe scenes from age 6 with such clarity? Question 2: Would you write a tell-all autobiography while your mother is still living? This guy's mother appears to have been a nice Irish Catholic lady, so how could he announce to the world (and to her) his sexual exploits at age 15, 16, 17, all in lurid, foul-mouthed detail? I mean, doesn't he have any sense of shame? And why do we all rush to call it "unflinchingly honest" (NYT) instead of bizarrely indiscreet? Poor Mum. Question 3: At what age does it become idiotic to blame all your moral failings on your father? Towards the end of this book, when our anti-hero is telling us how he wrecked his marriage (and finally is getting around to mentioning drinking as a serious theme), he speaks of how he didn't have much sense of how you behave as a father because of his father blah blah blah. OK, dear reader, there is this little thing called The Golden Rule, and here's how it works. Did you like it when your father ignored you and went to a bar to drink? No? It made you feel bad inside? Then you try *not* to do that to your kids -- see? You do the *opposite* of the things that made you feel bad. I miss St Augustine. Sure, agonizing over those apples might be a bit tiresome, but at least Auggie made a real effort to understand his past and why he did things. Atheist or not, isn't it an interesting problem to figure out how morals work? What constitutes the good life? And if you haven't lived it properly, aren't you ashamed?

  9. 5 out of 5

    Spider the Doof Warrior

    I'm nearly done with this book. I don't drink more than wussy sweet wine, no higher than 4% alcohol. I do not think I am so dorky for this. Pete Hamill talks about growing up surrounded with alcohol, having his first drink around the age of 11 and how drinking shaped his life. He talked about wanting to be an artist and a writer and having the pressure to not rise above his station thrust-ed on him by his peers. I say, screw that. Live life the way you want to. Don't just drown your feelings in b I'm nearly done with this book. I don't drink more than wussy sweet wine, no higher than 4% alcohol. I do not think I am so dorky for this. Pete Hamill talks about growing up surrounded with alcohol, having his first drink around the age of 11 and how drinking shaped his life. He talked about wanting to be an artist and a writer and having the pressure to not rise above his station thrust-ed on him by his peers. I say, screw that. Live life the way you want to. Don't just drown your feelings in booze. Feel them! Live them! This book is about how he opens his eyes to this fact and decides to break the pattern. To stop drinking to deal with the agony of not living the life the way he wants to. It's very inspiring. Especially since he, like me wanted to be a writer and also an artist. I say let's work on making our dreams come true. The only thing is folks go on about how great the past is and how it was so much nicer than it is nowadays, but they had the same problems only no one TALKED about them. No one talked about alcoholism, they just scorned people who could not handle their booze and folks didn't talk about their bad marriages they just struggled through them. I wonder if that's actually healthy. 8/18/18 I read to it again and it makes me seriously hate alcohol. At the culture behind it. I am not judging drinkers but the larger society. I'm not saying teetotal totally but there's something warped about society and how it handles drinking and gender roles and life in general and I really don't know what to do about it. Also he married a 17 year old. Gross. The booze kept him from dealing with why his life sucked and why his decisions sucked and he realized he was acting through life and wanted to change thatat least.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Dan Mccoig

    This book was published in 1994. I ran across the title in a list of "must read memoirs." The book more than lived up to its billing. Hamill is a journalist, essayist, and novelist who began his writing career with the New York Post. Hamill tells the story of his Irish Catholic upbringing in 1940s and 1950s Park Slope, Brooklyn, his professional ascendancy as a writer in the 1960s and 1970s, and the role of beer and whiskey in his undoing personally. In Hamill's world, strong drink accompanied li This book was published in 1994. I ran across the title in a list of "must read memoirs." The book more than lived up to its billing. Hamill is a journalist, essayist, and novelist who began his writing career with the New York Post. Hamill tells the story of his Irish Catholic upbringing in 1940s and 1950s Park Slope, Brooklyn, his professional ascendancy as a writer in the 1960s and 1970s, and the role of beer and whiskey in his undoing personally. In Hamill's world, strong drink accompanied life's high and low points and every point in between. Hamill discloses his disenchantment with the Roman Catholic Church, his frustration with The Neighborhood [his immediate blocks in Brooklyn], his struggle to be both good boy and bad boy, and his love of the writers of the Lost Generation, especially Hemingway. His account of his search for his "Great Good Place" as a writer leads him to Mexico City, Barcelona, Belfast, and London as well as other locales in which to ply his trade. Drink costs Hamill his first wife and their daughters. Drink made Hamill a stranger to himself. He concludes that he "played" his life rather than "lived" it. This realization provides him with the power to get and stay "on the wagon." The story is gripping. Hamill's prose makes it all the more gripping.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Patrick O'Neil

    With A Drinking Life, Hamill has written the great American proletarian memoir. Which is no small feat considering, aside from his working class roots, Hamill has become anything but a proletariat. I’m not disputing he was a hard working journalist who put his time in writing for the New York Post – a profession almost as hard as his former two fisted drinking binges. But what I find interesting is Hamill’s insistence on romancing his working stiff upbringing as if it somehow not only justifies With A Drinking Life, Hamill has written the great American proletarian memoir. Which is no small feat considering, aside from his working class roots, Hamill has become anything but a proletariat. I’m not disputing he was a hard working journalist who put his time in writing for the New York Post – a profession almost as hard as his former two fisted drinking binges. But what I find interesting is Hamill’s insistence on romancing his working stiff upbringing as if it somehow not only justifies his drinking, but also allows him the credibility to poetically philosophize the psyche of the entire working class. Well written, concise, compact and prose driven A Drinking Life is Hamill’s narrative of his attempts at several careers, school, love, marriage, and his relationship with his father – all of which he lost, abandoned, or simple ignored, due to his alcoholism. Waxing nostalgically he chronologically leads us through his life: from birth, to adolescence, and finally adulthood. The majority of the book concentrates on his rather tough childhood in Brooklyn New York. Where, due to his father’s inability to work as a result of his alcoholism, at the age of 16, Hamill left school to work in the Navy shipyards. Torn between earning money for his family, and resuming his education, Hamill follows in his father’s footsteps and begins drinking as a way of coping with the difficulties of life. 195 pages into his book, the entirety being 265 pages, Hamill hasn’t taken us far. He’s in his twenties and is attending College in Mexico. Due to his drinking he has run afoul of the law and is incarcerated in jail. Not the best of circumstances to begin with, his experience is brutally horrendous. From his detailed and lengthy depiction of this episode, one would think it a pivotal turning point for him. Knowing he was there due to his drinking it would seem Hamill is showing us this scene because it influenced him, or gave him reason to reevaluate his lifestyle. Instead it appears his inclusion of this scene is primarily for establishing his credibility as a libertarian of the underprivileged. Although thoroughly mortified by what he has witnessed, Hamill does nothing, and flees Mexico, returning to New York to attend the prestigious Pratt Institute to continue his studies, and eventually become a journalist/reporter. Interestingly this is when Hamill’s drinking began to escalate in earnest, only he caulks it up as merely a hazard of the profession, sort of gentleman’s club activity for journalists. Leaving me wondering if Hamill was ever going to take responsibility for his drinking. Yet what is of further interest, and what pretty much answers that question with a resounding “kind of,” is his leaving only the last 52 pages to describe the next twenty years of his life: his final days of drinking, his failed marriage, abandoning his children, his extramarital affairs, his workaholic behavior. As if it was all something he preferred to forget rather than admit. However in these last few chapters Hammill writes some of his strongest work, allowing to reader to catch a glimpse of who he really was. Yet unfortunately in the final five-page epilogue titled “Dry,” Hamill simply tells us he just quit drinking and than attempts to explain it away as a decision he made, rather than it being a result of trying to repair all the damage he has done to himself and those around him. Hardly the insightful summary I had expected. Yet maybe that was my problem from the very beginning. I expected more. I wasn’t so concerned with the colorful tales of his childhood, or his youthful transgressions, instead I would have been more interested in the factual, not so glamorous, aspect of his drinking life. But then, having already been swayed by the book’s hype – the least of which coming from the New York Times’ book review: “Tough-minded, brimming with energy, and unflinchingly honest.” I came prepared to read a much different story.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tim O'Hearn

    I can certainly understand why high schools select Angela's Ashes instead of A Drinking Life. This could never be read or analyzed in a classroom filled with minors. But the message is more powerful; the story more thrilling. The author, in my opinion, a better one. Frank McCourt, rest his soul, was accused of exaggerating his poverty (including by his own mother). Pete Hamill's account, by my inspection, never blurs the line between what sounds good and what actually happened. Pete's account is I can certainly understand why high schools select Angela's Ashes instead of A Drinking Life. This could never be read or analyzed in a classroom filled with minors. But the message is more powerful; the story more thrilling. The author, in my opinion, a better one. Frank McCourt, rest his soul, was accused of exaggerating his poverty (including by his own mother). Pete Hamill's account, by my inspection, never blurs the line between what sounds good and what actually happened. Pete's account is credited as the direct inspiration for Angela's Ashes being written and that's quite the honor. We have this emotionally-charged agenda against heroin. I get it, there are social consequences that accompany the opioid epidemic. Is someone going to prick my arm with a syringe loaded with dope while I walk down Jackson St? Eh. A book like this makes you angry that nobody seems to complain about alcohol anymore except when it comes to driving. A Drinking Life isn't an account of someone's rapid disintegration and degeneration into addiction. It's just about the central place that alcohol had in the author's life, with the larger implication being, hey, reader, maybe you should evaluate alcohol's role in your own life. While Angela's Ashes may be remembered as an empathy-builder for immigrants and the dregs of society, this one weaves introspection with a heroic narrative--the only common thread being the Irish-Catholic guilt complex (well, not really, but the rest are evident). There are no truly gruesome or stomach-turning scenes caused by alcohol in this book. Many saddening, but few scarring, which helps to underline the slow process of alcohol dependence and the virtual impossibility of emerging from a drinking life scot-free. Aside from the widely-agreed-upon DUI, at which point are we comfortable blaming alcohol? I'm a bit melancholy writing this review because I'm 24 and there are already clear signs of it damaging the lives of young people I know. How can we not debate this social cost? The lost hours of productivity, the muddled emotions, the erased memories--don't these things count for something? Hamill outlines the pressure he felt, in his poor community in Brooklyn, to be mediocre in school and in life. Alcohol plays a major part in wasting his time and talents. As we cast aside some of the perils he faced as being "from a different time," is it not appropriate to examine the aspects of the book that are playing out the exact same way today? In a word, and I really do hate myself for writing this, sobering.

  13. 5 out of 5

    AC

    Two books really. The first half, covering his early childhood in Brooklyn and his father’s alcoholism, is not compelling (3-stars); the second half, his maturity (which began at age 15), is (4.5-stars). Entirely self-made, brilliant, intense, ultimately honest with himself, this details his struggles with alcohol and his final liberation from it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Todd

    Extremely sentimental, A Drinking Life waxes nostalgic while deftly building a case for the rationality of Hamill's alcoholism. From reading most of the book's reviews, it seems to have worked. Three-quarters of the novel are devoted to the first 14 years of Hamill's life; it's obvious to this reader, if not to Hamill, that most of the book is an excuse and a dishonest apology for his alcoholic behavior. The prose is good enough, it's well-written in that sense, but it lacks the brutal honesty o Extremely sentimental, A Drinking Life waxes nostalgic while deftly building a case for the rationality of Hamill's alcoholism. From reading most of the book's reviews, it seems to have worked. Three-quarters of the novel are devoted to the first 14 years of Hamill's life; it's obvious to this reader, if not to Hamill, that most of the book is an excuse and a dishonest apology for his alcoholic behavior. The prose is good enough, it's well-written in that sense, but it lacks the brutal honesty of a book like Revolutionary Road, or even one of David Sedaris' vignette. I never found myself nodding in sympathy, little Truth or mimesis to be found here, and I'm a recovering alcoholic - I should have been laughing and nodding in sympathy the whole time. Fear and pride keep Hamill from acheiving any real honesty, any true disclosure, and that's one of his problems; he wants us to like him too much. What an alcy. Although he's dry, Hamill needs a meeting more than ever.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin baschinsky

    A no hold barred story of his upbringing in a tough working man’s area of Brooklyn. He had many hopes and aspirations growing up, however he had much trouble succeeding . Mr Hamil has what is commonly referred to as the Irish Curse. A heavy drinker following in his father’s tradition . Made me wince on many occasions as to the amount of beer consumed . Well written. 4.5

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jim Jackson

    Fascinating!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    This book is an autobiography of Pete Hamill, a reporter and writer from Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in the forties, during the war. His father was (yawn) an Irish immigrant who drank too much (yawn), was mean to his family (yawn). Pete's mother was a loving, intelligent woman who does not get nearly enough credit in this book. Unfortunately, Pete resembles his father in the selfish way he lives his life. The best part of this book is the early part, with descriptions of life in Brooklyn duri This book is an autobiography of Pete Hamill, a reporter and writer from Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in the forties, during the war. His father was (yawn) an Irish immigrant who drank too much (yawn), was mean to his family (yawn). Pete's mother was a loving, intelligent woman who does not get nearly enough credit in this book. Unfortunately, Pete resembles his father in the selfish way he lives his life. The best part of this book is the early part, with descriptions of life in Brooklyn during the 40s. He plays games with other kids, runs around the neighborhood, and loves comic books. There is a real street life because no one has TVs yet. As the oldest in his family, his perspective is unique, but Mr. H. does not delve into much discussion there, something I would have been interested in. I am one of the youngest, and it was very interesting to contemplate the space of the olders... His experience was far different than, say brother number five, or only sister number 3. The major grievance I have with this book is that I started to realy dislike the narrator and his pick and choose method of telling his story. For example, bartenders get more attention than his siblings. Only two brothers get any attention. This is likly because, he did not spend much time with the younger ones? It the same w/ his first marriage. He marries a very young woman (Age 18 to his 26 or more years), and doesn't really explain why. He also doesn't explain why, after divorcing, he sends his two kids to boarding school in Switzerland. We hear about his early sex live, his relationship w/ Shirley McClain, but not why they broke up. It is partly the price of reading an autobiography, I admit, but still. The title is "A Drinking Life" and he tracks his drinking, from a young teenager and beyond. Finally he gets sick of it and stops. This is well after his marriage has ended. His kids probably benefited from this, but he does not bring them home, since Shirley is not into being any kind of step mom. This is a case of the man quitting the drink and is still a selfish ass hole! He loved comic books as a kid and tries to tie comic book characters who drink potions to transform into super heroes to his view of alcohol and its allure of transformation. He sees his father drink and become mean and abusive. He sees his mother work work work and have babies indefinitely. The author goes on and on about his relationship with his father, but after he is about 12, his mother gets mentioned less and less. I started to resent this. Hamill is in Belfast with his father the time JFK was assassinated. What a self indulgent piece of work. Ohhh boo hoo for you and your drunk daddy. I'm not dismissing his emotions, it is just he is such a selfish bastard it is hard to look over his horrible husbandry to feel empathy for him howling in the dark streets, and everyone knows the Kennedys are a bunch of fake heros. So, this book held my interest because my contempt for it grew and grew.... I did like the neighbors drinking tea in the hot summer nights. Also, there are some fierce sex scenes, if you are into that.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Todd

    When I picked up Pete Hamill’s 1994 memoir “A Drinking Life,” I expected endless stories about the Lion’s Head pub and New York in the mid-‘60s, filled with Clancy Brothers’ singalongs, crazy newspaper stories and how Hamill recovered from his lost weekends. To my surprise, “A Drinking Life” is truly about Hamill’s life, all the way back to the 1930s and ‘40s, and spends maybe a couple dozen pages on the ‘60s. Was I disappointed? Only slightly. Because “A Drinking Life” is one hell of a tale well When I picked up Pete Hamill’s 1994 memoir “A Drinking Life,” I expected endless stories about the Lion’s Head pub and New York in the mid-‘60s, filled with Clancy Brothers’ singalongs, crazy newspaper stories and how Hamill recovered from his lost weekends. To my surprise, “A Drinking Life” is truly about Hamill’s life, all the way back to the 1930s and ‘40s, and spends maybe a couple dozen pages on the ‘60s. Was I disappointed? Only slightly. Because “A Drinking Life” is one hell of a tale well told. You have Brooklyn, the world where Hamill grew up and where he spent his first couple decades viewing Manhattan as a land that may as well been as far away as Alaska. You have his father, who spent whatever extra money he had at the bar; and his mother, long suffering; and his ever-growing family, somehow keeping it together. And you have the booze – first in occasional sips, then in regular quaffs, finally in barely remembered rivers. But “finally” is relatively late in the book; before that, his memory is clear and discerning, with colorful snapshots of his varied life. Hamill wonderfully confounds at several turns. At one point he qualifies for a free education at one of the best Catholic high schools in New York. At this point I expected him to find his bearings and sail through, a rich newspaper career just ahead. Nope; he left after a year. He talks about how much he loves drawing and art, and I expected him to realize he wasn’t that good and land that newspaper column we all know him for; nope, he actually WAS pretty good, even had a successful agency, but after writing a letter to the editor of the New York Post, found himself in the newsroom and decided to try a new trade. He has a heartbreaking affair with an artist’s model while still a teenager; he lives in Mexico; he quits the Post and free-lances and rejoins the Post; he has a failed marriage. His life is the opposite of a cliché. Even the drinking isn’t as oppressive as he suggests, though there’s obviously a lot of it – “Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness,” he writes at one point – but you never get the feeling that he’s truly lost. He was a man who drank, then drank too much, then had enough sense to stop before he fell off a cliff. He remembers almost all of it – certainly enough for dozens of good stories. “A Drinking Life” is 265 pages. Even without the Lion’s Head and the ‘60s, I could have read three times that many. I raise a glass to you, Pete Hamill -- with whatever you’re drinking.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Pete Hamill nailed it at the end when he talked about “acting” at life vs. living life. It’s this authenticity – this striving for whatever it is that’s real that’s driven me in my own life. And it’s the escapism in substances that’s illusionary in that the positive it offers is intense and as short as a second. The problem is the negatives always outweigh it no matter how you try to rationalize it. And the negatives increase the longer the use continues. I thought this book as centered around a Pete Hamill nailed it at the end when he talked about “acting” at life vs. living life. It’s this authenticity – this striving for whatever it is that’s real that’s driven me in my own life. And it’s the escapism in substances that’s illusionary in that the positive it offers is intense and as short as a second. The problem is the negatives always outweigh it no matter how you try to rationalize it. And the negatives increase the longer the use continues. I thought this book as centered around alcohol was fascinating in the way the story of New York was told around and through the inclusion of alcohol in the narrative. It’s almost as if the book wasn’t meant explicitly to center around alcohol yet there it was. That’s precisely the insidious and damaging nature particularly of alcohol in society. It’s not only the legality of a dangerous substance but the full-on social acceptance and ritual of it. Breaking away from or quitting drink is not as simple as simply not picking up a drink for most people. It’s also the breaking of a way of living in society - the places you go, the people you’re around, the friendships you’ve made, etc… it’s a death in a way – dying to one life and often to many friendships – no matter how substantive they might have been. Hamill is a master of prose, and the book is a great read from a man who has obviously discovered a great deal about life from his clarity and decision to stay lucid.

  20. 5 out of 5

    John Hintz

    I have read ten or more drinking memoirs in the past couple of months, as I try to assess the role of alcohol in my life. This and Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story are my two favorites. But unlike Knapp's, which very much is a drinking memoir, Hamill's book is more of a complete memoir. A Life much more than just a "drinking" life. Alcohol is not central to many parts of the book, even though it's always there. And there is no moralizing whatsoever. (Of course, no memoir worth its salt wo I have read ten or more drinking memoirs in the past couple of months, as I try to assess the role of alcohol in my life. This and Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story are my two favorites. But unlike Knapp's, which very much is a drinking memoir, Hamill's book is more of a complete memoir. A Life much more than just a "drinking" life. Alcohol is not central to many parts of the book, even though it's always there. And there is no moralizing whatsoever. (Of course, no memoir worth its salt would do this, especially not one penned by a seasoned journalist.) As many reviewers and critics have noted, perhaps the most lasting thing about this book is the incredibly evocative imprint of mid-century Brooklyn that Hamill paints in the first half of the book. I have read few books where place is so clearly portrayed, with what seems like the perfect dose of sentimentality. But even beyond Brooklyn, during his time in Vietnam, his expatriate pilgrimages, and his return to New York, the book remains gripping. It's honest, frank, and plainly laid before the reader. By the time alcohol starts to become questioned, rather than just an uncritically central theme, there are only thirty or so pages left in the book. Yet, there is still enough "drinking memoir" there to leave _that_ reader breathless and satisfied. Truly brilliant, highly recommended. Clearly, a genre-defining book. Imitators should be very wary.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Daina Fanning

    This was an amazing book. Vividly written and painted a picture of the author’s personal struggles and the world at large in the 50’s to 70’s.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Steve Moskowitz

    I really enjoyed this book. It was a great page Turner. The beginning is better then the end.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Derek

    Much like David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, the title for Pete Hamill's memoir is a bit of a misnomer; to be sure, drinking plays a central role in Hamill's life, but this reads much more like a standard autobiography with lots of drinking to serve as the backdrop. Which is fine, of course, if you're a reader who happens to be interested in the life of Pete Hamill. I wasn't, necessarily, and that became a barrier to my enjoyment of the book. So why wasn't I interested? Well, I might have been, but t Much like David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, the title for Pete Hamill's memoir is a bit of a misnomer; to be sure, drinking plays a central role in Hamill's life, but this reads much more like a standard autobiography with lots of drinking to serve as the backdrop. Which is fine, of course, if you're a reader who happens to be interested in the life of Pete Hamill. I wasn't, necessarily, and that became a barrier to my enjoyment of the book. So why wasn't I interested? Well, I might have been, but the book spectacularly manages to get off on the wrong foot. There's so much ironic narrative distance in the sections where Hamill describes himself as a boy that the prose is nearly unbearable. If nothing else, it seems amateurish. One such example, though you could find one on nearly every page, comes from when the adolescent Pete observes a friend's sister doing some rooftop sunbathing: She lathered suntan oil on her bright pink body, rubbed some on the tops of her breasts, then lay back with her eyes closed and her abundant black hair spilling onto a white towel. I didn't know why but that made me feel funny. I turned away and went down the street. I did not tell my mother about this.This type of downright obvious narrative distance, when coupled with the goofy Brooklyn-ese and weirdly idealized WWII NYC setting, is grating to say the least. There's nothing in this section we haven't read before. There are no revelations about boyhood, or unique experiences of the war. There is nervousness and confusion. Kids make sense of it through comic books. You've seen this setup in dozens of movies. It gets better, though. Once young Hamill strikes out on his own to make something of himself, the story gets a bit more interesting and the voice a bit more inventive (though there are still lots of plodding passages about breasts). He gets into a scrape in a Mexico jail, which is memorable not only to Hamill but the reader as well. He rubs elbows with NYC literary Somebodies. He philanders and marries and travels and sires. And that's enough to keep the reader going. But it's not enough, unfortunately, to elevate this text above a hoary Pete Hamill reciting his exploits. There's a moment in the book where a friend admonishes him for feeling that he's above everyone else, and that he lords this superiority over his friends and acquaintances. An exchange to which Hamill writes, "And though I was hurt and wounded, another thought slid through my mind: Maybe he was right." Okay, great---some self-awareness, a bit of severely lacking self-excoriation. But Hamill stops there. If he does feel guilt (and I have no reason to believe that he doesn't), he never gets that on the page in the same way that he captures his unease with being a Brooklynite good-ol'-boy or his fascination with art and comics. And really, that's a pretty vital element to a memoir about drinking, isn't it? But it's only ever on the page in brief glimpses. When weighed against his gleefully described drunken escapades, well, a drinking life sounds like a pretty damn good one. I'm guessing that wasn't his intention.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Pete Hamill has been one of my favorite authors and writers for a long time. This book covers ground and was published entirely before he entered my awareness. The story of his boyhood in Brooklyn, in The Neighborhood grabbed me, and didn't let me go until sometime in the mid 1970's when Pete Hamill heard his father singing on a hillside in Ireland (aka the last page of the memoir.). Hamill is still around and writing, so there's no spoilers there. I think the decades that make up the gap from e Pete Hamill has been one of my favorite authors and writers for a long time. This book covers ground and was published entirely before he entered my awareness. The story of his boyhood in Brooklyn, in The Neighborhood grabbed me, and didn't let me go until sometime in the mid 1970's when Pete Hamill heard his father singing on a hillside in Ireland (aka the last page of the memoir.). Hamill is still around and writing, so there's no spoilers there. I think the decades that make up the gap from end of this book to current day must, most certainly, be filled with fabulous tales. I've loved Hamill's writing since I read Snow in August when it first came out in 1997. I gave it to my mother to read and he won my heart with her response. My mother grew up in Brooklyn, and though her neighborhood there was not Hamill's, she wept reading the story. "He knows," she said. "He knows." Some of his other books have also found a place on the bookshelf of my heart. When he writes of New York City, you are there, even in his memoir. I will say there were certain elements that fascinated me: that he dreamed of being a cartoonist; that in his quest to find himself, he got lost in his own neighborhood; that he found a way out to follow his art, only to lose it to circumstance, and stumble into what would become his career, and his gift to readers. I read of his time in Mexico City when my offspring was there, enjoying a visit with friends, and experiencing the opposite end of the spectrum from Hamill's experiences (thank goodness.) It was also fascinated to find the well known names, particularly in the last bit of the book, sprinkled into his life, some quite significantly. Fascinating writing. Fascinating story. Not your usual "how I got sober" story, but one that truly investigated the life he led, how he got to the point that made him rethink, and very briefly, past that point. It's clear that Mr Hamill knows is craft as a writer and reporter. I raise my ginger ale to you, sir.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Isaac Babel's Ghost

    Memoirs about giving up drinking usually follow a formula: The author relates a series of embarrassing ancedotes that happened while drunk, he "bottoms out" and realizes he has a problem, book ends with something uplifting about them getting their lives back. This book, however, totally breaks with that formula. In fact, alcohol, while present just about everywhere in the book, plays a mostly background role in the narrative until the very end. The author spends much more time on his memories of Memoirs about giving up drinking usually follow a formula: The author relates a series of embarrassing ancedotes that happened while drunk, he "bottoms out" and realizes he has a problem, book ends with something uplifting about them getting their lives back. This book, however, totally breaks with that formula. In fact, alcohol, while present just about everywhere in the book, plays a mostly background role in the narrative until the very end. The author spends much more time on his memories of growing up in 1930's New York, writing, art, relationships, and family than any sordid tales of alcoholism. There is, of course, the usual "this could be you" warning to the reader, but it's so muted, so understated, that it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be a book about someone getting off the sauce and not a sepia-toned journey into the lives of poor "Shanty Irish" in old New York. Hitting the reader subliminally with a message they don't even know they're getting is the mark of a truly great writer. Any reader looking for stories about the author stumbling drunk and doing stupid shit will find a few, but deeper and better and more interesting stories and observations are strewn throughout: The author's introduction at a young age to the evil side of humanity at summer camp, a string of broken relationships that serve as stepping stones from adolescence to young adulthood, his passion for literature and the escape it brings, his thoughts on family and fatherhood, and the liberation that writing brings to the soul. But, throughout the entire book, one theme looms larger than the others: The author's wish to love and be loved by his father. This isn't a book about drinking, it's a book about life.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I had originally read Hamill's "Downtown" and loved it (I'm a history buff). So I picked this up instead of any of his fiction thinking it would be more stories about old New York. So imagine my delighted surprise when I found out that he actually grew up less than a block from where I currently live (in South Slope). Needless to say, the time period of his life before he moves away from home was an absolute joy for me to read about. He describes how an old Brooklyn neighborhood reacts to major I had originally read Hamill's "Downtown" and loved it (I'm a history buff). So I picked this up instead of any of his fiction thinking it would be more stories about old New York. So imagine my delighted surprise when I found out that he actually grew up less than a block from where I currently live (in South Slope). Needless to say, the time period of his life before he moves away from home was an absolute joy for me to read about. He describes how an old Brooklyn neighborhood reacts to major world events, and the mundane details of his own life. He mentions where all the old bars were (all of them are now gone: replaced by dry cleaners, boutiques, coffee shops, etc. Only Farrell's remains) and places he hung out. He talks about the socials aspects of life without TV and full of immigrants. I could not get enough of that. Once he grows up and moves out, it was still an enjoyable read. Sometimes it seemed to veer uncomfortably close to bragging about bedpost notches and badass tough-guy attitude, but he'd always try to (sometimes unsuccessfully) convince you he regrets those days. All considered, if you are interested in Brooklyn folk history, read the first half of this book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Connie Curtis

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. DO NOT READ THIS UNLESS YOU'RE DONE WITH THE BOOK! I am surprised I liked this book as much as I did considering it consists of only this man's life from boyhood to adulthood. Told in great detail in some areas and frustratingly vague in others, this book was interesting from the first track (I listened to it). It reinforced the thought that kids turn out like their parents whether they want to or not unless they try hard to get out of the pattern that is set for them by example. My one gripe is DO NOT READ THIS UNLESS YOU'RE DONE WITH THE BOOK! I am surprised I liked this book as much as I did considering it consists of only this man's life from boyhood to adulthood. Told in great detail in some areas and frustratingly vague in others, this book was interesting from the first track (I listened to it). It reinforced the thought that kids turn out like their parents whether they want to or not unless they try hard to get out of the pattern that is set for them by example. My one gripe is that he told way too much detail about his sex life. I really couldn't care less about that. Instead of the sexual exploits in detail, I would have rather heard more about his stint in the Navy, or his time in the Mexican jail. Alcohol ruined his life for the most part until he decided to stop drinking. By then, it was too late to repair his marriage. It was a very interesting book for the most part. I don't drink, so I wasn't influenced to never drink again; but I think others may think twice before picking up the next beer once they see the life that can follow by worshipping the demon drink.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    A frank look at the life of journalist and author Pete Hamill. Based on the title, I thought this would be more of a detailed drunk-alogue and how he subsequently found sobriety--not so. Hamill spends a lot of time relating his early years, growing up poor in an Irish immigrant family in Brooklyn in the 30's-50's. Alcohol is the undercurrent of his life even then, with an alcoholic father, who often was absent even when he was present, and the magnetic pull of drinking within the Neighborhood, a A frank look at the life of journalist and author Pete Hamill. Based on the title, I thought this would be more of a detailed drunk-alogue and how he subsequently found sobriety--not so. Hamill spends a lot of time relating his early years, growing up poor in an Irish immigrant family in Brooklyn in the 30's-50's. Alcohol is the undercurrent of his life even then, with an alcoholic father, who often was absent even when he was present, and the magnetic pull of drinking within the Neighborhood, as Hamill referred to the area of Park Slope where he grew up. Hamill does get into his own drinking and its repercussions, but described in much broader strokes than his "formative" years. I really enjoyed his depictions of Neighborhood life and the historical events he experienced. Yet what really sticks with me is all the longing he expressed--longing to break out of the Neighborhood mold, to find meaningful work, to be creative, to find love and belonging; the sensitive and earnest soul within the tough, brawling, hard-drinking Brooklyn guy.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Rick

    Hamill, the veteran New York journalist turned novelist, wrote this memoir in the early 90s, describing his early years growing up in Brooklyn (Park Slope when it was a working class neighborhood), finding his way to books and art, bars, school, jobs, and finally into the newspaper life. Attendant to all these phases was drinking, his father's, friends', his own. Hamill has done interesting things and keeps a journalist’s ear for incident and dialogue sharply opened as he recalls his formative p Hamill, the veteran New York journalist turned novelist, wrote this memoir in the early 90s, describing his early years growing up in Brooklyn (Park Slope when it was a working class neighborhood), finding his way to books and art, bars, school, jobs, and finally into the newspaper life. Attendant to all these phases was drinking, his father's, friends', his own. Hamill has done interesting things and keeps a journalist’s ear for incident and dialogue sharply opened as he recalls his formative past. He writes bluntly, often without perspective of the present intruding so there’s an authenticity in the recalling of events but not much understanding. Being a New Yorker, an ex-Catholic New Yorker, who read Hamill as a teen and now lives in Brooklyn, there was lot for me to recognize and enjoy. It’s sharp, sometimes funny, sad here and there, but mostly like a telling collection of old black and white photos, like WeeGee and Walker Evans might have given us if they followed a single young man for a couple of decades.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Karie

    I picked this book up out of desperation for something, anything to read…and I must admit that the title clinched the deal. “A Drinking Life” – I couldn’t resist. Drama, angst, highs, lows…it’s all right there in the title. What I wasn’t expecting was a book that depicts a time, place and way of life that has always fascinated me. One of the reasons I love “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is the vivid and at the same time, faded sepia description of a New York, and an America that I never knew. I’ve be I picked this book up out of desperation for something, anything to read…and I must admit that the title clinched the deal. “A Drinking Life” – I couldn’t resist. Drama, angst, highs, lows…it’s all right there in the title. What I wasn’t expecting was a book that depicts a time, place and way of life that has always fascinated me. One of the reasons I love “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is the vivid and at the same time, faded sepia description of a New York, and an America that I never knew. I’ve been to New York twice, have seen touristy parts and not so touristy parts, have been at turns delighted and appalled by its residents…and of course, in that short period of time, barely scratched the surface of this city that almost defies description. Because, of course, there are so many facets to it. New York depends on the area, the time, the circumstances. One person’s New York may be a polar opposite of the next person’s. Pete Hamill, in the first half of his memoir, describes the New York of Brooklyn from 1939 to 1950. In this New York, he and his Irish Catholic family struggle to better their situation. They live hand to mouth, in sometimes squalid apartments – too small for a family that keeps growing. And yet – when Hamill spends pages describing the more positive aspects of his childhood – I feel a yearning to be there. To see the far quieter and yet more greatly populated streets. I hope to hear the sounds of stickball, and radios playing jazz and swing into a summer night. I want to feel the safety and connection of a neighborhood that knows each and every member…one that shares the joy of the end of a war that they together shared the dread of. He describes D day in a New York that had been blacked out for months fearing air raids. “…without warning, the entire skyline of New York erupted into glorious light: dazzling, glittering, throbbing in triumph. And the crowds on the rooftops roared. They were roaring on roofs all over Brooklyn, on streets, on bridges, the whole city roaring for light. There it was, gigantic and brilliant, the way they said it used to be: the skyline of New York. Back again. On D day, at the command of Mayor LaGuardia. And it wasn’t just the skyline. Over on the left was the Statue of Liberty, glowing green from dozens of light beams, a bright red torch held high over her head. The skyline and the statue: in all those years of the war, in all those years of my life, I had never seen either of them at night. I stood there in the roar, transfixed.” He also describes his love of books, and words, and comics and the magic that happens when one is drawn into the new world of a story. When you discover a world, an existence, a universe previously unknown. “But when we lived on Thirteenth Street, the content of the comics was driving deep into me. They filled me with secret and lurid narratives, a notion of the hero, a sense of the existence of evil. They showed me the uses of the mask, insisting that heroism was possible only when you fashioned an elaborate disguise. Most important was the lesson of the magic potion. The comics taught me, and millions 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.” And there it is, of course. The underlying thread of the book…drinking. From the earliest age, alcohol is everywhere in Hamill’s life. In his neighborhood, in his home, even in his history – drinking is an accompaniment to all events, large and small. When he reads Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the passage that stands out is one where Jekyll drinks the potion and is transformed in a hideous way…”I read that passage and thought of my father.” Hamill is deeply influenced by his father…hating what drinking does to him at the same time he is learning that drinking is what men do. As the book continues, some of the detail of Hamill’s life is lost, certainly because (as he is first to point out) much of it was lost to him as well due to alcohol, but I also got the sense that this part of the book was rushed. It almost felt like Hamill was looking at how much had written about his early life and realizing that he’d better move things along if was ever to finish. Still – there are passages like these that sucked me right back in. “In the summer of 1950, all of us from the Neighborhood hung out in a place on Coney Island called the Oceantide. Built on the boardwalk at Bay 22, it was a block long complex with a swimming pool, lockers, a long packed bar, and a small fenced-off area where the young men danced with the young women to a bubbling Wurlitzer jukebox. Down the block was a shop called Mary’s, which sold the most fabulous hero sandwiches in New York, great thick concoctions of ham and cheese and tomatoes laced with mustard or mayonnaise, along with cases of ice cold sodas.” My mouth waters just thinking about it…I want to be there! Finally, towards the end, Hamill comes to the realization that he’s spent his whole life trying to either be exactly like or nothing like all of the influences in his life. Nothing like his father, and yet just like his father. Exactly like the comic book artists and heroes. Exactly like and nothing like his friends from the Neighborhood. Not only his life, but his writing is an imitation or rejection of that of others. Which is summed up in the mantra he uses to quit drinking. “I will live my life, I will not perform it.” There is much time and experience and emotions that he has lost – but in the end, he is able to find the strength to cut the losses. “And I loved my life, with all its hurts and injuries and failures, and the things I now saw clearly, and the things I only remembered through the golden blur of drink.”

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