Drunkard isn’t mawkish. It isn’t false. It doesn’t try to charm its readers into forgiving the author’s flaws. Neil Steinberg expects us to like him no more than he likes himself, and based on the evidence of this book, that relationship blows hot and cold. Drunkard reminds me of something I once told an adolescent daughter: that growing up is learning how to pretend to be normal. Entering middle age, Steinberg’s still pretending, and he can be luminous and touching when he considers his techniques. He tells us of a piece of advice he has for one of his two young sons: “When a friend of Kent’s is coming over, Kent will often sit by the window, looking out and waiting. I try to tell him not to do that—people sense that eagerness in you and draw away.”
Early on in Drunkard, due out June 19, Steinberg annoyed me by writing this: “The Sun-Times moved its offices a year ago, after our publisher, the reptilian crook David Radler, sold the building out from under us in a deal with Donald Trump.” Now he says that—when Radler’s defanged and in prison! Back in the day Steinberg took the king’s shilling and wrote his editorials, and when America was strapping up to knock sense into the Middle East some of them were vile. But one thing Steinberg wants us to hang our hat on is that he’s a dutiful functionary—a team player who never misses a deadline, drunk or sober, and a good family man, even though the evening commute to Northbrook has regularly brought him home to his family intoxicated. He describes a world that sounds patched together from Ben Hecht and John Cheever—a world in which the only gods are journalists, the journalists are drunks, and the drunks hang tire swings from their sugar maples in the suburbs.
Steinberg has been a Sun-Times columnist since 1996. I met him in 1992 while writing a column on his first book, which nominally dealt with cow tipping and other college pranks—though I offered in Hot Type that “in his own way he’s meditating on the century.” I stopped thinking we were friends seven years later, when out of the blue—or so it seemed to me—he responded to a column I’d just written on Brenda You, a former Tribune writer who’d gone on to work for Jerry Springer and pose for Playboy. (She’s since committed suicide.) In a letter to the editor that began, “Of all the miscalculated Michael Miner pieces I have read over the years . . . ,” he went on to opine that I “was just bedazzled by her gaunt porn star looks.” He might date the breach differently, perhaps from 1995, when I begged off on editing Bobwatch, the column about Bob Greene that he’d begun writing for the Reader under the name Ed Gold. That wasn’t a judgment on Bobwatch; it simply felt wrong for me to abet a subterfuge that a media columnist would normally be expected to reveal.
At any rate, his sixth book, Drunkard, is fascinating. It begins—after some brief scene setting in which Steinberg describes exactly how and where he got wasted each evening before catching his train—with the night he slugged his wife, Edie, and she had him arrested. You may have read about it in the papers in 2005. A trip to jail, rehab, and AA followed, along with sobriety and relapses, altered family life, and Steinberg’s grudging admission to himself that AA was probably right—he could only be saved if he submitted his ego to some higher power. The problem was that he didn’t believe in a higher power, and he couldn’t pretend to himself that he did.
Steinberg’s predicament could support a novel, and in some respects Drunkard is written like one. It faithfully reports how the weather was and, as Hemingway also advised, it’s artfully reticent. Steinberg tells us just enough about being a drunk to assure us he is one, but he doesn’t wallow in his alcoholism. His writing is brisk and sober.
On his last day in rehab, the other addicts take turns saying good-bye. Steinberg writes, “The newest people in the room have the nicest things to say, while those who have been around me longer are cooler, a common pattern. Something in me must turn people off—ego, I suppose. You see a guy stuck on himself, no matter how he struggles to hide it, to bury it under obscuring layers of false modesty, and you want to slap him down.”
It’s something that’s happened before, but Steinberg didn’t think it would happen here. “I’m surprised,” he goes on, “and would be hurt if I let myself be, but manage to tune out the room, to go numb, and just wait until it’s over so I can go. This isn’t what I expected at all.”
There’s another scene where he’s tucking his son Ross into bed and Ross asks about his dad’s favorite authors. Steinberg tells him about The Sun Also Rises. Ross asks what it’s about. “There’s a group of friends, in France, in the 1920s, and a man who was hurt in the war, and they all go down to Pamplona, Spain, for the running of the bulls. . . . ” Does Steinberg, we wonder, want to imagine himself a man like Jake Barnes (but potent, of course)? Does he look in the mirror sober and see Robert Cohn?
When my wife, a faithful Steinberg reader who pounced on the review copy before I did, described Drunkard to me, I thought Steinberg’s boss, Michael Cooke (whom the book offers the fig leaf “Peter Baker”), sounded like his enabler. But Steinberg doesn’t call him that. He describes a friendship with a caring mentor that any man would envy, in which racquetball followed by food and drink figures large. Baker actually attends a couple of AA meetings with Steinberg and begs off a third, yet he leaves a voice mail that ends, “You’re well out of it, and I have to say I wish I was out of it too, in many respects.” His voice sounds odd, and Steinberg wonders if he should call him back. And then—”It strikes me, for the first time: Everybody is so concerned about Baker pulling me down. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if I pulled him up?” And suddenly there is the Baker-Steinberg relationship right on the page instead of just off it. It’s like a short story that snaps into focus as it ends.
Edie isn’t the only significant woman in his story. Perhaps because of my weakness for gaunt porn-star types, I was drawn to one other, a petite young coke addict named “Leslie” who begins rehab the same day as Steinberg. “My higher power is myself,” she tells the group. The remark is catnip to Steinberg, who finds her “intense” and “genuine” and always seems to notice what she’s wearing. The day she’s in salmon pedal pushers and a green tank top she reveals herself to the group as a Jewish princess “twirling at Grateful Dead concerts” when she was 11, progressing to Ritalin, pot, and oral sex at 13, and eventually moving on to opium and Thailand. Later, after she became a chef in LA, “I lost my sense of self,” she says. “Before I knew it, cocaine was my best friend. . . . Cocaine took me to my knees.” Steinberg gets it when she says she’s “licked every bathroom in Los Angeles” for cocaine residue, though still ahead of him is the time he hits the vanilla bottle at home for the alcohol it contains.
In time Steinberg asks Leslie out to lunch, and when she says she wishes they’d done that more often he thinks, “I should have asked her again.” But on his last day in rehab she makes the good-bye ceremony even worse. “My little rehab pal speaks so briefly and so tepidly that she’s done almost before I realize she is talking, saying in essence that I taught her the risks of overintellectualizing and the value of shutting up. Then it is over.” Whatever Leslie had on her mind at that moment, what registered with Steinberg was: she’s just not that into me.
My wife’s main objection to Drunkard is that she wanted to hear from Edie. Edie’s in there, of course, by turns icing up and thawing out, but she speaks only to her husband and never to us. Artistically I think it’s the right choice. In his epilogue Steinberg reports he’s been sober a year (that lasted another six months before he had a drink, he tells Marcia Froelke Coburn in the June Chicago), and adds, “Eventually, it begins to dawn on me that perhaps I have found the higher power that the program keeps saying I must have—Edie. It is she who has always stuck by me.” Can this cool, distant, judgmental higher power save him? I hope. But the sweet last sentence of the book was the first I wasn’t certain I could trust: “As much as I love to drink—as much as I loved to drink—the bedrock truth is I love her more.”
By the epilogue I had my own ideas about a higher power. From the get-go Steinberg was too smart by half in the way he brushed off God, and in time he seemed to realize this. It’s not irrational to presume the irrational when rationality alone won’t do. The square root of minus one is an imaginary number, but there’s a lot of math you can’t do without it. If you can’t find something just because it isn’t there, you need to look harder.
The whole book is shot through with an unseen presence. Twice Steinberg alludes to it, in an author’s note that says, “Here is my story . . . We tell our stories, because we have to, because doing so somehow redeems us,” and in an acknowledgment thanking his friend Cate Plys “for suggesting that I take notes” Steinberg is precise about moods and reactions that flicker and pass: “How are you supposed to be helped,” he wonders, “clutching arrogance like a blanket, by someone whose office is smaller than your own?” Moments so evanescent would have been lost to him, and us, if he hadn’t been as much reporter as addict. That unseen force is the will of a writer whose separate agenda might have kept him from committing fully to any program he was in but might also have been his lifeline.
How do people cope who can’t tell themselves, “One day I’ll write about this”? I don’t know, and Steinberg might wonder too. Surely he knows that year of sobriety was something his book needed as dearly as he did.