There has been a lot of discussion in certain circles lately over the memoir: Is it inherently narcissistic? Can it ever be journalism? Is anyone's personal life ever actually interesting to anyone else?
For those of us who read a lot of memoirs, this discourse has bordered on the sublimely ridiculous. There is memoir writing that is sloppy and lazy and self-absorbed—see, for instance, Elizabeth Wurtzel's rambling piece in New York magazine last month. But there are memoirs that are as carefully researched and reported as any work of non-fiction, like David Carr's The Night of the Gun. And then there are the works of personal writing so exquisite it almost doesn't matter the subject or theme. Is Joan Didion a narcissist because she's been writing about herself since the 1960s? Hardly.
The anti-memoir crowd likes to say that most people don't lead interesting enough lives to write about. I think this is a fallacious argument—it's not the events of one's life that necessarily make a memoir worth reading, it's the telling of them. Something as trite as heartbreak or as common as grief can make for powerful reading in the hands of a skilled writer. And even the most exotic, interesting life can become a tedious tome. One needs only to flip through most celebrity autobiographies to be reminded of this.
What, then, to make of the middle ground, the memoir of a partially interesting life told in a partially interesting way? This is the question I kept pondering as I forced my way through Rosie Schaap's new memoir, Drinking With Men (Riverhead).
Schaap writes the "Drink" column for The New York Times Magazine, which I generally enjoy. In fact, I couldn't be more of Schaap's target audience than if she wrote her book especially for me—like her, I have been a regular at various bars over the years, and like her, that time has been spent mostly in the company of men.
Schaap writes in her introduction, "It seems to me that someone ought to defend the great tradition of regularhood, of passing hours and days and years drinking and talking and laughing in bars. And it's time someone advocated for equal regularhood rights for women everywhere." I couldn't agree more. Most books about bars are dark tales of alcoholism, when in reality not everyone that pops in for a regular cocktail or two is a drunk.
Unfortunately, reading Drinking With Men is not nearly as much fun as a drink at your favorite pub. Each chapter of the book revolves around a different bar associated with a significant time in Schaap's life. There is the Metro-North New Haven–line bar car, where the high-school Schaap tells the fortunes of middle-aged commuters in exchange for beer. There is the pub in Dublin where she discusses poetry while studying abroad. There is the bar in New York where the regulars comfort each other in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. And on and on.
This structure feels forced at times. The bar in the second chapter isn't a bar where Schaap was a regular, just a bar where she got the drunkest she'd ever been, then or since. The chapter is actually about the time Schaap spent following the Grateful Dead after dropping out of high school; somehow the lessons she learned during that time prepared her to later become a regular in bars. Seriously.
The problem with writing a memoir thematically structured around one topic is that life is messy. Schaap has a number of interesting stories, but they don't all tie into the 13,000 hours she estimates she has spent at bars over the years. They can't possibly do so. Drinking With Men is not really a memoir of the pleasures of being a barfly; it's a contrived cocktail that smushes too many of the wrong ingredients into one glass, leaving out the flavors that would be a more natural fit.
Nowhere is this more evident than near the end of the book. In the penultimate chapter, Schaap visits Montreal for a friend's wedding and reflects upon her own marriage, deciding, after time spent in a random bar in the city, that she needs a break from it. She returns home and tells her husband, who is understandably hurt. They enter marriage counseling, but eventually they separate.
Schaap never mentions her husband again, so one is left with the impression that they got a divorce. However, what actually happened is that her husband got cancer and Schaap spent several years taking care of him before he died in 2010, events that she has written about in essays published elsewhere. Of course memoirs are carefully constructed versions of actual events, but it's an odd omission, and one that feels misleading.
All in all, Drinking With Men is an exasperating read. Some chapters read like distinct essays, and some read like they only exist because they were in the original book proposal. Schaap's prose ranges from the lyric to the slapdash—a better editor would have axed the superfluous parenthetical asides that pepper the pages. And the tips on how to behave in bars that pop up occasionally throughout the book read like the worst kind of service journalism. Does anyone these days really not know to tip at least a dollar a drink?
I'm sure Schaap would be a perfectly lovely drinking companion, and I don't doubt the regulars at the Brooklyn bar in which she now works enjoy her expertise on both sides of the bar. But if you're looking for a memoir to quiet the critics of the genre, you're better served elsewhere.