One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer...  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   April 1994

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer...   

A Drinking Life: A Memoir
By Pete Hamill
Little, Brown and Company

Book review by Robert Borsellino
Robert Borsellino, a former New York newspaper reporter and editor, is managing editor of WOI-TV, the ABC affiliate in Des Moines.     



A Drinking Life: A Memoir
By Pete Hamill
Little, Brown and Company
265 pages; $22

Before the twin terrors of carpal tunnel and master's degrees ravaged the news business, there was the problem of alcoholism.

The hard-drinking newsman was a familiar figure in literature, film and city rooms. He was streetwise with a deep contempt for authority, a soft spot for a sob story and the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol while meeting yet another deadline.

He was, above all, a cliché.

"A Drinking Life," Pete Hamill's personal account of his battle with alcohol, is a hard look behind the scenes of that hoary myth.

For every night of revelry, Hamill the journalist reminds us, there is a morning of reckoning: waking up beside a spouse who has caught the act one too many times; facing hurt and often embarrassed children; dealing with hangovers and memory loss.

And a journalist who cannot remember what has happened cannot work.

The pain of the drinking life, for Hamill, began with his father's problem. Belfast-born Billy Hamill was, like many men of his time, a father in name only. His place was either at work or at the bar. The rest was just dead space.

On a Sunday afternoon in the early 1940s, six-year-old Pete stood with other neighborhood kids and watched as Billy Hamill was half-carried home from Gallagher's bar.

The kids directed a singsong chant at little Hamill:

"Your old man's an Irish drunk. Your old man's an Irish drunk."

Fists flew, blood was drawn. Pete Hamill, with the first of many fights behind him, started down that road toward understanding the pain and shame alcohol can cause.

From there, we track Hamill — as child, artist, lover, father, newsman, world traveler, drunk — from working-class Brooklyn at the outbreak of World War II through lower Manhattan during the waning days of Vietnam.

We hear the radio shows and news flashes that were the roadmarkers of the '40s. We're reminded that New York was once a city that could support seven daily newspapers. We feel the powerful pull of the neighborhood, the need to fit in and be one of the guys. We watch stickball games that never end, argue the merits of a black man playing for the Dodgers, listen to great music and spend glorious summer days at Coney Island.

And many a night we see Billy Hamill stumbling home, barely able to negotiate the stairs, sometimes coming to rest on a landing of the walk-up, often falling asleep at the kitchen table.

The story is compelling; the writing is lean. Hamill the man captures Hamill the aimless adolescent with 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.

When he recounts a brief romance, he offers insight into himself, the woman, the people around them, their time and place:

"Catherine was sweet, funny, a drinker, with dark hair cut in a bob, long legs and smooth skin. All around us, people were getting married as the men came back from Korea. It was assumed that we would be married too. My father knew her father; she lived two blocks from [us]; I was told in a dozen different ways by several dozen grown-ups that there was nothing better than a good neighborhood girl. That year Catherine went to a lot of baby showers. We went together to some weddings. She didn't mind my drinking or fighting; that was what men did. She gushed about the drawings I took home from Pratt, giggled at the naked women, but looked blank when I tried to talk about life as a painter. She didn't dismiss the subject..it just didn't register with her. I could have been discussing the rings of Saturn. We ordered beers. We danced. She laughed at my jokes. We groped each other in the kitchen of her parents' flat. I went home. Or stopped for a nightcap in a bar."

That was life and love in 1950s Brooklyn.

But it wasn't enough for some people. For some, there was a gnawing suspicion that there was more to life than a steady paycheck from the Navy Yard and a few beers on the way home.

Hamill journeyed across the river to Manhattan, walked the streets of Greenwich Village, discovered the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, drank with Jack Kerouac and Leroi Jones and — bless the arrogance of youth — talked his way into a reporting job at the New York Post.

Through hard work and good timing he went on to become one of the premier chroniclers of his time. Like too many of his contemporaries he came out nursing what we now call a "substance abuse problem."

Pete Hamill, like his father before him, was a drunk. He was loud, obnoxious, violent. And then one night — New Year's Eve 1972 — he broke the cycle.

The determination that years before drove Hamill across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan, later drove him into sobriety.

That he did it without the aid of therapy or a support group is probably less important than he makes it out to be.

What is important is that this son of '40s Brooklyn — a product of a time and place that now exists only on paper — continues to work.

He's still writing, still growing, still sober.

And he ends this tale a generation before he coaxed the New York Post off the ledge. The follow-up will probably write itself.

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