The hitch in the Navy during the Korean War was a start, for it was at a base library in Florida that he discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The remainder of the 1950s would be filled with more drunken meanderings--most notably a nightmarish sojourn at an art school in Mexico City under the GI Bill--but toward the end of the decade he had begun secretly teaching himself to write. In those charged political times, with the death of McCarthyism and the appearance of young Jack Kennedy, he began to devour the city's seven newspapers, especially the liberal tabloid Post. In 1960, at 25, he was hired as a night rewrite man there, with the direct result of an impassioned letter to the editor, Jimmy Wechsler, challenging the notion that people without formal education didn't belong in newspapering. The Hammer was on his way.
Reading much of "A Drinking Life" is like gawking at a wreck on the highway. Working off and on for the Post, supplementing his income with magazine pieces and screenplays, Hamill was forever searching for "the GGP (Great Good Place)." Married now, with two daughters, he tried Spain, Ireland, Rome, San Juan, Mexico City and countless other stops, until he was summoned back to the Post as a columnist in 1965.
In retrospect, he never became a great New York columnist. Unlike Jimmy Breslin, who was and sometimes still is, Hamill was weighted with too much booze and too little true self-confidence; too often the column was vitriolic, angry, stewing with rhetoric, stuck on one note. He was, in many ways (especially throughout his long public affair with the actress Shirley MacLaine), his own best story.
Understanding this and sensing "odd little signs of deterioration," Hamill quit drinking, cold turkey, on New Year's Eve of 1972. Positive results came almost immediately when he wrote "in one miraculous burst" a celebrated novella, "The Gift," "full of drinking and love for my father." He has pointed out to interviewers that he produced one novel while drinking, and seven since. He would go by the Lion's Head, to test himself: "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."
The story ends in the mid-70s, with a ceremonial visit to the old Neighborhood in Brooklyn, indicating that the door might be open for a sequel. In recent years the sober Pete Hamill has been writing better than ever in places like Esquire and New York and the Village Voice--impassioned pieces with an old-fashion liberal attitude about everything from AIDS to rap music--and he truly roared back into the city's consciousness last year when he strode heroically into the newsroom of the embattled Post to take over as editor of every liberal's favorite tabloid. Under the glare of television lights, to a standing ovation from colleagues too young to remember pint bottles in the bottom desk drawer, a relic of newspapers as we once knew them had returned. Hello, sweetheart, give me Rewrite.