Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 20, 2020

Book Reviews: Memoirs About Drinking

I’m working with a writer who is writing a memoir about the drinking life, so I decided to read some memoirs that were specifically about this topic. I had been wanting to read Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, simply because it’s by Pete Hamill, after all. He’s a damn good writer, and I was very aware of his reputation as a reporter in the days when others like Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer were also writing for NYC’s daily newspapers and tabloids, like the Post and the Daily News, and essays from other “New Journalism” writers like Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Truman Capote and others made the news.

In fact, I had read a review of Hamill’s book in the New York Times and it whet my Pete Hamill_A Drinking Lifeappetite to read more. The book was, indeed, a very good read, with a vivid portrayal of what life was like growing up in Brooklyn, in Prospect Park West/South, in the 1950s and 1960s, in a struggling Irish Catholic family, when the Neighborhood was your World, the local pub and the Dodgers and Coney Island and the turmoil and ecstasies of pubescence were so important, and New York City—just a subway ride away—beckoned those with aspirations for the experiences of a larger world, especially in the areas of art and literature and journalism. Intertwined with that narrative is the story of how alcohol became such an integral part of Pete Hamill’s world.

As the reviewer (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt) notes, Hamill wrote in his memoir that, “Drinking was part of being a man. Drinking was an integral part of sexuality, easing 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.” Eventually, after he started writing for The Post, Hamill said he approached “the third stage of the process” which he said was described in the Japanese saying, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.”

Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story is a very different story. For one thing, she came from a small, fairly well-off Boston family, father a psychoanalyst and mother a painter, Caroline Knapp_Drinking, A Love Storyboth parents from families with even greater fortunes and histories. Unlike the boisterous world of Brooklyn that Hamill describes, Knapp’s family sounds sedate and undemonstrative, very WASP-y, and she seems to spend as much time searching to understand her father in this book as she does sharing her own gradual decline into full-blown alcoholism, and then recovery. When she does relate alcohol-infused stories, she invariably shares stories also from other people’s lives, people she met through AA, as if to show how common these behaviors and experiences are among alcoholics, especially alcoholic women.

Knapp’s first story in the book is about the incident that turned her around, her “hit bottom” point, which made her admit that she needed help. While drunk, and playing with her friend’s small children, she had an accident and nearly injured the children, and badly injured herself, her knee. This incident also happened after her parents died, within about 18 months of each other, and she realized her father was an alcoholic—one who had been having an affair with another woman, on and off again, his whole married life.

Knapp gives credit to a stint in rehab, followed by intensive participation in AA, for helping her to get sober and remain sober, and her book includes an appendix with information for where to get help. Hamill, on the other hand, says he made a decision to go cold turkey (New York’s Eve, 1972) when he began to feel he was just playing a role in his own life, rather than actually participating in it.

Hamill’s book is definitely the better read, especially if you want to get a deep sense of Brooklyn and NYC life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially for an Irish Catholic male. However, Knapp’s book speaks directly to women in ways that Hamill’s can’t. They both write about using alcohol to mask an innate shyness, to lubricate the social muscles, but Knapp also faces challenges that are unique to females—deflecting unwanted attention from males, the always looming prospect of getting pregnant, a rather weird father-daughter relationship.

However, these two books are solidly in the same genre. Both describe, probe and analyze how alcohol came into their lives and how it gradually became the most important part of their lives. They describe the effect that alcohol had on their social and personal relationships, and how it gradually became a destructive force. And they describe what made them stop drinking, and then end their book with a short description of how their recovery has gone since then. It is a now-familiar arc, but these two stories are from different times, different places, different perspectives, different families, different cultures. They are completely different voices.

This gives me something to take back to the writer I’m working with. Yes, it’s an old story, the memoir about drinking, but each is a unique story, representing a particular person’s time and place and culture and influences and outcomes and experiences.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to discover was that poor Carline Knapp died of lung cancer only six or seven years after she published her book. She was only 43 years old. Hamill, twice that age, is still going—if not going “strong,” then still plugging along despite several health problems over the last decade. According to a November 2019 report, he had just recently moved back to Brooklyn, and is working on another book. When it’s published, I plan to read it!




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