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Once Upon a Barstool : A DRINKING LIFE: A Memoir, By Pete Hamill (Little, Brown & Co.: $21.95; 265 pp.)

January 23, 1994|Paul Hemphill | Paul Hemphill's most recent book is the memoir, "Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son. "

Late in 1969, after five years as a daily newspaper columnist in Atlanta and the reward of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I was summoned to New York to see if I wanted to take my act to the mother of cities. Jimmy Breslin of the Herald-Tribune and Pete Hamill of the Post had been distant models for me--hard driving, hard drinking, macho street poets from the Hemingway School--and now I was being offered a chance to compete with them from Newsday out on Long Island.

As a part of my tour, I was taken into the city by my friend Mike McGrady, a fellow Nieman and a Newsday columnist of some note. "Maybe we'll run into the Hammer," he said, speaking of Hamill, as we entered the raucous valley of an artist-and-writers bar in Greenwich Village called the Lion's Head. Now for the big leagues , I remember thinking; and, lo and behold, there was Hamill himself alone at the bar.

"Pete," said McGrady, tapping Hamill on the shoulder.

Startled, as drunk as any man I had ever seen, Hamill flailed at his attacker. Soon he was hand-walking along the back wall, trying to make it to the cigarette machine, spilling quarters as he went. "Not a good time to meet the Hammer," said McGrady.

For reasons unrelated to the spectacle of seeing one of my heroes wasted in a New York bar, I rejected the offer from Newsday--what I really wanted, at 33, was to start writing books--but that image stayed with me even as I descended into alcoholism myself.

Like Hamill, I was the son of a blue-collar drinker, the self-taught boy who had found my place as a proletarian prophet in an era when drinking and posturing were as much a part of that life as interviewing and typing. We had bought into the Hemingway legend without acknowledging that it had destroyed Papa before his time.

Now comes the rest of the story, the grim tale of what led Hamill to that night at the Lion's Head 25 years ago, and I'm inclined to ask where "A Drinking Life" was when I needed it. "I didn't know it at the time, but I had entered the drinking life," Hamill writes of dropping out of high school at the age of 16 and taking a job at the Brooklyn Navy yard. "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." Yes. Precisely.

In straightforward candor, with the unflinching staccato hammering that lent him his nickname, Hamill shows us that his fate was sealed from the moment of his birth in 1935. He was the oldest of six children sired by an immigrant from Belfast who spent his days at menial labor and his nights in the bars of Brooklyn Irish neighborhoods. It was a classic urban childhood in many ways--playing stickball in the streets, trading comic books, baiting the nuns at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school, craning to glimpse the triumphant Dodgers parading down Flatbush Avenue, delivering the Brooklyn Eagle--but it promised little future. The routine was to drop out of school, marry a girl from the Neighborhood, follow your father into the factories and the saloons, have kids, get old and die.

Somewhere in young Pete Hamill, though, there was a rebel wanting to break the mold. Thanks, in part, to a mother who read to him as a child, he became a regular at the public library and saw there was a larger world beyond Brooklyn. Oddly, his ticket out would be a fascination with art that had begun with his boyhood attempts to copy illustrations from the pages of Tarzan and Captain Marvel. By the time he was 17 he was working days at the Navy yard and spending nights at an art school in Manhattan--one foot in each of two desperate worlds--and he was hearing imaginary voices from the Neighborhood. Who the hell do you think you are?

He was even juggling two women: a libidinous model in Manhattan and a nice Catholic girl in Brooklyn. "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. . . ."

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