Pete Hamill's life as best he remembers it was awash in drink

February 10, 1994|By David Mehegan | David Mehegan,The Boston Globe

Pete Hamill is one of those tough and gutsy New York writers who are full of stories, busting with stories: novels, short fiction, magazine pieces, screenplays and 34 years of newspaper columns. For him it's been tell, tell, tell for decades. But he never told his own story. Now he has, and that story, it turns out, is about family and drink and sex and drink and work and drink and life -- and drink.

Mr. Hamill's new book, "A Drinking Life" (Little, Brown), is the tale of a Brooklyn boy from a hardscrabble Irish family who did pretty well for himself. But at a cost. That cost is past -- he gave up drinking 20 years ago, when he was 38 -- but he is just now facing up to what it means to him, and sharing that understanding with others.

Doing that was not easy, Mr. Hamill said during a recent conversation. For one thing, he didn't want to preach or pretend that his story had meaning for everybody.

"I didn't want to be one of those guys who congratulate themselves for their wonderful self-discipline.But then about three years ago I began to see friends dying in their 40s and 50s, if not directly from drink, from falling down in the snow or dying of pneumonia, having wrecked themselves." Still, friends knew he had escaped that fate and wanted to know how. His book is at least a partial answer.

Pete Hamill's parents were born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and married in America. They settled in Brooklyn and had three children -- Peter was the oldest, born in 1935. They were one of those classic Irish couples: His mother an enduring rock of forbearance and his father a well-liked, hard-working wage-earner with a wooden leg. Something else: Billy Hamill drank hard all his life (he died at 80), and growing up, Peter got to see the good and the bad of that.

The good was the camaraderie, conviviality and his father's immense popularity in Rattigan's, the local saloon. The bad was the ill temper when drunk, the distraught wife, the countless hours lost to any other worthwhile activity, the sight of him passed out in the corridor on V-J Day, too blasted to care that the war was over.

Why didn't his father's boozing and his mother's obvious suffering as a result of it drive Pete Hamill away from drinking? Part of the reason, he now says, was the need to connect with his father.

"First you are appalled by it," he says of the spectacle of his father's drinking, "then there's a process where you become it. In a way, to get close to him I embraced the thing that he was. I couldn't really get close to my father until I could stand in a bar with him."

That was one of the functional things about drinking. It was ingrained in the social life of that hard-working neighborhood, even the economic life. "The saloon was a club," Mr. Hamill recalls, "an employment agency. I can still remember someone saying, 'They're hiring down at American Can.' Then a bunch of guys went home early to get there in the morning. They didn't have a Harvard club -- they had Rattigan's."

Pete Hamill quit St. Agnes' High School in 1951, at 16, and went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice sheet-metal worker. He left home, renting an $8 flat over a deli on Prospect Park Southwest. By then he was already an active drinker.

"I didn't know it at the time," he writes, but he had already $H entered the drinking life. "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."

In his book, Mr. Hamill skims faster and faster after the adolescent period: There was a Navy hitch, an abortive stint in college in Mexico on the GI Bill, a short career as a graphic designer, then the start of his journalism career at the New York Post in 1960. He married, two daughters were born, he was divorced. He slept with lots of women, became a celebrity columnist, the pal of Norman Mailer and lover of Shirley MacLaine. He covered Vietnam, traveled the world, wrote screenplays. Through it all, he drank, drank, drank. His hands began to shake. He would wake up at night with no feeling in his legs. He noticed weird misspellings in his copy.

New Year's Eve 1972, at a bar called Jimmy's in New York, Mr. Hamill looked at himself, the cigar-chomping gangsters listening Buddy Greco at the front tables with their girlfriends, his plastered friend's face falling in his drink, the ghastly gaiety around him. He said to himself, "I'm never going to do this again." He never took another drink.

Pete Hamill's story departs from every cliche about drinking. He did not hit the skids, does not call himself an alcoholic, did not join AA, did not try and fail to quit drinking. He just quit, felt better almost immediately, and never looked back until now.

"The real rummies with their bottles of Thunderbird in the parks and doorways," Mr. Hamill says, "were a comfort to us. We'd say. 'We're not alcoholics like them, we function, we go to work.' There was something comforting about that. But the damage you do to friends, your talent, your family, can be worse because of that delusion that you don't have a problem."

One not-obvious real scar, Mr. Hamill says, is memory loss: a frightful thing for a writer. "Drinking is the great killer of memory," he says. This is noticeable in the book: Vietnam gets about three paragraphs.

Pete Hamill won't moralize about his drinking life, even less anyone else's. "The book is about the drinking life," he says, "not just the alcohol -- the life."

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