(Author’s Note: This is my first entry for the Progressive Book Club. I’ll be posting a review for a book I’m reading once a month for the PBC. If you’re interesting in taking part, head on over to the Guidelines and toss your hat into the ring.)
The words “the drinking life” may conjure up some distinct visuals. For some, the drinking life may evoke images of poets and drunkards, sometimes a person one and the same, holding court in a watering hole somewhere, raging against a world that has failed to recognize their genius while depleting said bar of their ample stock of Scotch whiskey. For others, the drinking life is a celebration of life itself, shared in a community of friends and fellow drinking colleagues, celebrating triumphs, lamenting tragedies, all shared with the libation of one’s choice.
The former holds true in Rosie Schaap’s brilliant memoir, “Drinking With Men.” Schaap, who writes the Drink column for the New York Times Magazine, is something of a drinking savant, a learned sage in the art of being able to hold your drink and tell a good story. Drinking With Men isn’t merely a collection of droll anecdotes set in the backdrop of one waterhole after another. It isn’t the story of a misbegotten life – the title of this book itself is a misnomer. At its core, the memoir is really a recollection of Rosie Schaap’s past and current drinking life, a worldview shaped in several bars in New York City. Rosie Schaap’s memoir, like many a memoir, is a coming-of-age story, wherein her education came from unexpected sources. Eager to escape a rocky relationship with her mother (and a distant relationship with her father, whom she barely mentions – and it’s worth mentioning here that she spends little time discussing her famous father here, and for good reason: their frosty relationship bears little purpose to the narrative of this memoir, save for when Schaap faces her father’s death. Their relationship, and her relationship with her husband, is the subject of another memoir, which I hope she’ll write, and soon), Schaap rebels, first with drugs (her daliance with the Grateful Dead and their legion of slavish devotees makes you want to cringe), then alcohol, where she soon discovers gives her some sense of identity. She learns what it means to be able to talk to people, about things that are of importance – well, to her and to them, at least – and how drinking is that bond.
Drinking With Men is thankfully devoid of wretched tales of drunken excess. In other words, if you’re expecting tales of vodka-fueled drunkness, a la Chelsea Handler or Snooki, you’re best advised to look elsewhere. Instead, the stories Rosie Schaap tells are of friendships that are lasting to this day, of how those friendships made up for the family she didn’t have, and how the watering holes she frequented were her refuge, sometimes from herself, sometimes from what she was running away from. Those watering holes were her confessional booths, her sanctuary. In time, she grows comfortable in her own skin. The passages on the aftermath of September 11th, and how she was called to service – she became an ordained minister, of all things – is something she speaks of eloquently, with the gentle gift of a poet, and the grace of a restless soul who has finally found the peace they were looking for.
What’s refreshing about Drinking With Men is the lack of hypocrisy about what it means to drink alcohol in America. We openly encourage people of an adult drinking age to partake in alcohol, but we don’t like people who actively drink alcohol. It suggests a moral and personal weakness. Hogwash, says Schaap, and while she may have made missteps in her life along the way, the drinking life she pursues is one that doesn’t mask her insecurities, or enboldens her to act in a certain way. Rather, it’s a ritual she takes part in, a communion she shares with her fellow man, and she shares that story with tremendous grace and warmth. The colorful personalities she meets along the way hold special places in her heart, and the loving tributes she delivers – Schaap’s recollection of Ed, a fellow drinker at the Liquor Store Bar, is especially riveting and heartbreaking – is a reflection on her capacity to bond with people through libation and conversation.
Schaap readily admits that, yeah, she could have stood to make better choices in her life, but, fuck it, her experiences more than made up for her missteps. Especially when there was a cold pint of Guinness at the ready.
The fact of the matter is Rosie Schaap is exactly the kind of person you’d want to be hanging out with at any respectable bar, anywhere in the world, where the music is kept low, the conversation is lively and insightful, and the Jameson’s flows freely. I found Drinking With Men a compelling memoir, one that I gulped down in one sitting. Rosie Schaap is a masterful storyteller, and she keeps the reader engaged in stories that never lapse into maudlin self-pity or ironic glorifications of nights having drunk one too many. Her prose itself is exhilarating, so much so that you can easily imagine yourself being in one of the many bars she brings to life. You can taste the bourbon. You can smell the sawdust. You can hear the conversation. It’s all good.
In fact, I’ve probably had a few shots of whiskey and some deep conversation with someone like Rosie Schaap. It might have been Rosie Schaap for all I know. Hell, we might have even made out. Okay, maybe not.
Ah, if only I had a glass or two of some fine whiskey to accompany me while reading this memoir.