Those were the days
I briefly took up the drinking life in Boston. It was around the time I abandoned youth for good in my twenties and surrendered to the inevitable and adulthood in my thirties. A guy I connected with through work bought the next round at Jake Wirth’s on Stuart Street. Dawson’s Ale. Which required reciprocation. And more reciprocation. Until by the time I breathed fresh air again, I’d been magically reunited with a sepia-colored past and was hooked. This went on for a couple more years, through more bars in Boston and then abroad, from one end of Europe to the other. Until work separated us and I moved on.
The legacy of my venture into “Those Were the Days” was a continuing fondness for my newfound friend, beer, that I indulged mostly on weekends for another forty years. If the physical abuse Pete Hamill described hadn’t been a barrier, and my need for solitude, the impulse was certainly there to go all out. Mind-altering that I won’t go near today attracted me then. It took me into worlds of larger-than-life consequence, the causes and transformations that I missed from my WWII childhood. The companionship of beer was the companionship of meaning, and I was in no hurry to part with it.
The fourteen years since have validated Hamill’s experience, that the sound and fury of drink, entertaining as it was, was performance. An imitation of life rather than the real thing. Having thoughts and feelings clean and clear, untinted by alcohol, makes life way more interesting. Opens explorations of felt experience, of authenticity, that actually lead somewhere instead of trapping me in the theatrics of self-regard. Hamill found that he could get better kicks from not drinking. Make better connections with people who mattered, and that’s how it was with me. June 24, 2009, was my last Bohemia. A chunk of life came and went. It was what it was, and I never looked back.
It’s not about redemption
A reader who hasn’t already read Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, or heard about it or its author, will judge it by its title. I did, which is why I took so long to read it. Working class Brooklyn Irish guy raised Catholic gets into booze. Drops out of high school. Takes the kind of job where guys spend their lives so they can retire with a pension. Lives a life of grinding despair. Never enough money, nagging relationships, failing health. Dead-end career, unemployment, crushing hangovers. Guilt, remorse. Spiraling out of control until he’s hit bottom. And then redemption. Salvation, AA. Surrendering to a higher power. Jesus. Priests. Absolution. Weekly confession. And so on. And now the author wants to save us.
This is not A Drinking Life. Hamill was raised Catholic and went to a primary school called Holy Name. But belief in God played no part in his story. In the drinking or non-drinking part or the moment that separated them. He was indoctrinated with religion and never bought any of it. An altar boy at one time, he was as alienated as one could get from the Church, its representations -- teachers as well as teachings -- and remained immune to its influence through every turn in his story. He rejected its promise of redemption but, more than that, the idea of redemption itself. His life story was never anything but his own responsibility.
A Drinking Life isn’t about redemption of any kind. Its author most certainly changed his mind and his life, and he’s found reasons to talk about it if we care to listen. But we’re not being preyed upon. We can make of it whatever we want. Because that’s all there is to it. The telling of the story. A guy looking at who and where we are from who and where he is, telling it straight. No bullshit. A writer and a drinker with a life-long talent for bullshitting himself and others. Practicing a newfound talent for telling the truth. For being honest instead of play-acting. And since he’s experienced, a talented writer with a life-long habit of reading, a passion for creativity, sociability, and variety, his story is edifying as well as entertaining. Worth telling, and it’s told well.
The cartoonist and his cartoon
Nevertheless, a guy drinking soda at a bar, talking about himself, making no effort to entertain, should be a total bore. If we go by the laughs this book gave me -- two -- from an author renowned for humor in his convivial world of hijinks, you’d think he was a bore. But I couldn’t put the book down. Preconception was dead wrong.
That is, for me. I only flirted with a drinking life. Bending elbows in Boston’s bars with one drinking buddy a couple of years and then it was over. I eluded the bubble. But it could be right for a beer enthusiast who hasn’t arrived at Hamill’s moment and isn’t likely to. The moment when there was yet another occasion for embracing the drinking life and Hamill backed off. He saw himself play-acting -- “performing,” to use his word. He looked at his drink, realized why it was there, why he was there, and realized he didn’t want either. Didn’t want the drink but, more important, the life that it stood for. The life and the performing persona that went with it. Didn’t want the theatrical fiction he’d made up to be part of it. To be part of bullshit instead of a world where real people look after one another, listen to one another. Take care of business and get things done. Where they aren’t cartoon characters off on flights of fancy, engaged in an eternal contest for conquest, supremacy, and glory.
Because that’s the life he’d led. The life of an adolescent Brooklyn street fighter so taken with comic book mythology -- machismo idols, supernatural powers, and magic tricks -- that he made it his life’s work to bring it to life. To make it real for him. Where he, the comic book action hero come to life, could rule the streets unopposed. His calling was creative writing and journalism, the career that eventually put him on the map. Yet early on, all his efforts were devoted to becoming a cartoonist. So that he could indulge his passion for comic books, his obsession with fantasy. So that he could transition from consuming alternate realities of action heroes, villains, legends of Olympian combat, and mythical forces, to producing them.
It was his dream. And he had fun. Good times with the bad, non-stop action either way. Brawls won and lost, made no difference. One put a bullet so close to his head he could hear it, but it was OK so long as he could go on picking fights. Constant change, constantly on the go. If uprooting to exotic places on an impulse, all-night parties, limitless access to booze and sex, getting teeth knocked out, and being thrown in jail far from home makes for an interesting life, Hamill led an interesting life.
Until, in his 38th year, his story took a different turn. His vision changed. A new awareness took hold and the dream faded. He had joined the writing fraternity, become a respected source of insight into current affairs as well as a storyteller and poet. Serious stuff. His expanding world forced an expanding awareness. The adolescent cartoonist couldn’t remain inside a cartoon and ignore reality, no matter how charming he was. He had to take note and get it right. He had to think and reflect. To align his stance, his brand, with what actually mattered. To judge consciously with discretion and not subconsciously with animal instinct. To put his talents of mind to work in a new way. To grow up. To survive.
Hamill got close with Shirley MacLaine, an experienced Hollywood-Broadway actress who was serious about play-acting and knew a lot about it. A professional instead of a barroom bullshitter, who introduced him to the difference between being and performing. Made him aware that the difference between being who you really are and performing someone else is what makes the performance authentic. You can persuade others that you’re another character if you’re grounded in your own character. In your baseline self where the mind, heart, and soul that animates your fictional character originate. If you’ve figured out your own story, the reality of it, not the mythology.
With knowing yourself comes a critical awareness: the separation between adolescent dreaming and grownup living; between pretending to be about something and actually being about something; between mind-altering at a bar, escaping into an alternate reality and bullshitting, versus being real in the here and now and being honest. Between “being there” in every sense instead of not being there. To belong before your audience you must learn to be who you appear to be.
The actress held up a mirror and Hamill looked into it. That’s all it took. To recognize what the image in the mirror was and what it wasn’t. To see that it wasn’t him. Wasn’t who he actually wanted to be as opposed to a comic book fiction. The invention of an adolescent mind caring more for supremacy on the streets, for being Captain Brooklyn, than for being there. For being present and accounted for. For those who depended on him: employers, wife, children, younger siblings, aging parents. All it took to retire Captain Brooklyn was a whiff of his arch enemy: Captain Self-Awareness. All it took was to uncover himself and another life. Where the real fun is.
The gift of honesty
My infatuation with beer began at age 30, eight years before the age when Hamill ended his. Its lingering for over forty years was what it was. I’m not weighed down with regrets. But with hindsight I can imagine that, without its distortions, I might have seen more possibilities and made better use of them than I did. The mind is a wonderful thing. Its capacity to produce and amaze is almost limitless. I can’t believe that imbibing spirits that kill brain cells is doing it any good. If you believe otherwise you’re kidding yourself. It’s the beer talking.
An over-aged beer enthusiast still wedded to the drinking life may have no trouble rationalizing why he doesn’t need to read Hamill’s book. Preconceptions always suffice. For passing by the nondescript guy at the bar drinking soda, quietly being honest about himself instead of putting on a performance. Instead of emoting, play-acting, entertaining. Preconceptions suffice for choosing company all too willing to feed self-delusion, the myth of endless, carefree youth. The contrived excitement of endless games. The denial of limits and difficulties, the end of anything self-gratifying. Unpleasantness and inconvenient truth whatever it is. He may go on soaking up the atmospherics of conviviality as always, the sports bar bonhomie, the camaraderie. Look down at his drink and go on celebrating his good fortune. The daydream that’s propped up eternal youth before and will go on propping it up forever. Long live adolescence!
But if you’re the drinker and are done with evasions, with substitutes for Love and want the real thing. If you’re open to trying something different you might find pleasure and satisfaction in hearing Hamill out. Hearing what a once-dedicated adolescent has to say and the way he says it. How he gave up being a one-dimensional “Brooklyn mug” to become a living, three-dimensional human being. How he climbed down off the screen and joined the audience. A person with blemishes and vulnerabilities instead of an armored Marvel comics freak. How he transitioned from immaturity to maturity. Without redemption. Without salvation. By looking into a mirror and being honest with himself.
A Drinking Life -- that’s all it is: honesty. This could be your turning point. This could be your moment. When the fun begins. The unadulterated originality and creativity that were once your birthright until they were imagined away. In a bargain with whom? With yourself. This could be when Life begins.