StarTribune.com

The lush life

Star Tribune

July 1, 2008

Neil Steinberg loves to drink. He loves everything about it -- the homey, masculine ambience of his favorite Chicago bars; the way the liquor glows in the bottles and the ice clinks in the glass; the way drinking makes him feel like a powerful, sophisticated journalist man.

He overlooks other things that it does: how it sometimes makes him sleep past his train station, or occasionally forget entire blocks of time. But he couldn't ignore the way it made him punch his wife, Edie, and rip the phone out of the wall. Edie wouldn't let him ignore that.

She had him arrested, and here the book begins.

"Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life" (Dutton, 270 pages, $25) is Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steinberg's love and maybe-farewell to alcohol. It's a fast, compelling read; he's a good storyteller, and a vivid writer. But you read the book with something like open-mouthed horror; this man really, really loves to drink.

As he sweats out the delirium tremens, attends AA meetings, and endures rehab, one thought keeps him going: When this is all over, I can drink again. And you never really doubt that he will.

His amazing snobbery does not help endear him to the reader. He sees the people in his AA group as beneath him; he blames Edie for his troubles; he gets bored listening to the "woes of others" at his meetings and itches to get back to talking about himself.

But it is his shallow self-image that it is most galling, the way he embraces the mystique of the hard-drinking, Robert Benchley/James Thurber/Mike Royko-type journalist.

He looks at his young sons and thinks, "It kills me that they'll know I'm not the sophisticated dad swirling the wine in his glass and casting off confidence like a glow. They won't admire me."

After 270 pages, he finally has stopped drinking, but you are not at all convinced that it will last. And the emotion you're left with, sadly, is not empathy, but schadenfreude.

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302