Pete Hamill

A Drinking Life

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A Drinking Life Summary

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In his memoir, A Drinking Life (1994), American journalist and author Pete Hamill focuses on his childhood and early life, tracing the roots of his alcoholism and its development up to 1972, when Hamill quit drinking for good. Best known as a journalist, primarily for the New York Post and the New York Daily News, Hamill is also the author of novels, short stories, essays, and non-fiction titles. He is generally regarded as one of the major figures of twentieth-century American journalism.

Hamill was born in 1935, the son of working-class Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Billy, had lost a leg to a soccer injury; he put in back-breaking days as a laborer, and he drowned his sorrows in drink. Rarely present, Billy was a frightening presence in Hamill’s life, and the author grew to hate him. Hamill was close, however, to his mother, who ran the household on a shoestring and showered her children with affection.

Hamill paints a vivid picture of his Brooklyn childhood. He played stickball in the streets, swapped comic books with his friends, attended Holy Name of Jesus elementary—run by nuns—, saw the Dodgers parade on Flatbush Avenue, and delivered the Brooklyn Eagle door to door. He learned to fight whenever he was challenged and to accept any dare: he recounts one near-fatal leap between two tenement roofs.

The community was close, but it offered few options to its children. Hamill and his peers were expected to marry a local girl, get a menial job, drink, grow angry, and grow old—like their fathers before them. As a boy, Hamill was already drinking in secret. Although he vowed that he would never be like his father, he couldn’t imagine an adult life that didn’t involve drinking.

He glimpsed a wider world during the hours he spent at the public library. Curious and intelligent, he won a scholarship to an elite high school in Manhattan. However, he began to feel guilty about leaving his community behind. His drinking intensified, and at the age of sixteen he dropped out of school to take a job at the Brooklyn Navy yard: “I didn’t know it at the time, but I had entered the drinking life…Drinking was part of being a man. Drinking was an integral part of sexuality, easy entrance to its dark and mysterious treasure chambers. Drinking was the sacramental binder of friendships. Drinking was the reward for work, the fuel of celebration, the consolation for death or defeat. Drinking gave me strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true.”

Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but continue to dream of a wider world. He enrolled in art school in Manhattan and began to live a double life, dating a life-model in Manhattan and a good Catholic girl from his Brooklyn neighborhood: “I tried to sort out all the different strands of my story: art school, the Navy yard, the Neighborhood, my father, my brothers and sisters, my friends, drinking, Maureen and Laura. I couldn’t do it.”

During his stint in the Korean War, Hamill discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald and began to write. At twenty-five he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post, arguing against the idea that people without formal higher education didn’t belong in journalism. He was hired.

Soon, he was an up-and-coming newspaperman, married with two daughters, filing from Spain, Ireland, Mexico, searching for “the GGP (Great Good Place)” where he could settle. He returned to New York and began writing the columns about city life for which he is best known.

All the while, his drinking intensified. He learned his trade by drinking with his fellow journalists, he sharked up stories in bars, and between times, he drank recreationally. His life began to fall apart. A public affair with the actor Shirley MacLaine ended his marriage. He recognized that his children feared him as he has feared his own father. He was waking up unable to remember the night before. His hands shook. He misspelled simple words.

On New Year’s Eve, 1972, Hamill had a blinding moment of clarity. He finished the drink in his hand knowing it would be his last one.

He explains that at first, he concentrated on giving up just one drink: the next one. It was hard to see his friends drink, even harder to see his father drink, but by resisting temptation, he came to understand at least some of the reasons why he drank himself. He recognized that in part, he drank to dispel the guilt of rising above his social origins. He began to find it easier to resist. Sitting with his friends in a bar, “the sensation of performance ebbed…I started hearing stories I’d heard many times before…I was polite. I listened. I laughed at the punch lines. But I didn’t drink.”

Hamill ends his account with the story of a trip he took in the mid-1970s to see the old neighborhood where he grew up.