I CAME ALONG toward the tail end of a grand old tradition of manly self-destructiveness in American writing—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Neill, Cheever, Carver, Tennessee Williams. And then of course there was Dylan Thomas, the Welshman.
So when I determined at the age of 18 to become a writer, I accepted my obligation to smoke many packs of cigarettes a day and learn how to drink gin and whiskey in goodly amounts, and to shun exercise done for the sake of exercise. No running. Writers were not runners. It was too awkward to run and smoke at the same time. We sat, brooding, and lit up and refilled the glass.
I was a healthy young man who enjoyed tennis and softball and basketball, but I made the leap from beer to bourbon, skipped the low-tar smokes in favor of Luckies, Camels, Pall Malls, and, when feeling flush, Gauloises. I drank a gallon of coffee a day, all because that’s what writers did.
When I was 24, I visited New York City, angling for a writing job, and went to the San Remo, where the poets hung out, and the Cedar Tavern, where the painters were. I studied how they sat, how they held a glass and exhaled the smoke cloud. I perched in the lobby of the Algonquin for three hours with a gin and tonic imagining that E.B. White would walk in and I’d buy him a drink and we’d become pals, which sometimes happens when two guys drink together.
My heroes in The New Yorker were unabashed alcoholics. The people in their stories were always sitting down for drinks, and cigarettes were more common than semicolons. If my writing was not yet on a par with Benchley’s or Thurber’s, I still felt I was on track, stylewise.
I was an English major at the University of Minnesota, and I was very shy, which many people misinterpreted as intelligence. On the basis of that wrong impression I became the editor of the campus literary magazine. I hiked around campus in jeans, white shirt, corduroy jacket, Red Wing work boots, and a broad-brimmed hat, with a pack of smokes in my pocket. If you hadn’t anything to say but wanted to appear thoughtful, you reached for the pack and shook a cigarette out. The ceremony of lighting up said more than words: It was thought in motion.
Back then, a pack cost 35 cents and a drink was a dollar. John Berryman, James Wright, and Allen Tate were on the faculty. Mr. Tate was 68 when I took his graduate poetry seminar. He was a slim, elegant man with a Southern patrician accent, author of “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” a pal of Robert Penn Warren and Hart Crane. He chain-smoked in class, so we did too. The whole English department reeked of smoke and was proudly alcoholic—anyone who didn’t do both was considered an interloper, possibly a Mormon.
In Mr. Wright’s humanities class, he stood at a lectern with an empty tuna fish can for an ashtray and chain-smoked through his lectures on Dickens and Whitman and Dickinson, which he delivered through a haze of hangover. He always looked pale and haggard. The line “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom” was written by a man who felt most at ease with a drink in his hand and smoke coming out of his mouth.
As for Mr. Berryman, his readings of The Dream Songs were famous for their high drama, the slurred speech, the poet slumped on the lectern, the sudden lurches into reminiscence, the muttered asides to friends in the audience, the poet almost on the verge of collapse. I sat in the front row, off to the side, and watched the great man; to me his greatness and his drunkenness seemed intertwined. A true artist must engage with dark forces, and this man was engaging them in his own body in full public view. Fate had driven him to this drunken state, just as it had driven him to create timeless verse, and he could no more give up whiskey than he could stifle his muse.
After the reading, I hiked over to the Mixer’s bar in Seven Corners—as I did several nights a week—where English grad students and instructors hung out. I ordered a scotch and soda and tapped my Pall Mall on a fingernail and lit it. Then I slid into a booth with Roland and Arnie and Rob and worked on developing my writerly persona, which, if not as dark as Berryman’s—blighted at the age of 12 by his father’s suicide by gunshot outside the boy’s bedroom window—was nonetheless as dark as I could make it.
I had no sorrows beyond what any normal 25-year-old Minnesotan would go through—scarce money, absurd self-consciousness, cold weather—and so I needed the bitter cigarette and the sting of alcohol to create a little drama for myself. In the movies, a man lights a cigarette before he goes off to face death, and after he has faced it, he pours himself a drink. It was dramatic, sitting in the booth, going through a whole pack of smokes, and when someone said, “Another?” and pointed to my glass, I of course said yes. That was what writers did.
I had, a few years before, been a YMCA camp counselor. I was not one anymore. I had decamped and moved on.
I THINK OF them now—Wright dead at 52, Berryman at 57, Tate lingering on to 79—as the elders of an extinct tribe. Nobody smokes at English department parties anymore, and hard liquor is nowhere to be seen, only wine. A writer wouldn’t hesitate to spend the evening nursing a glass of club soda, wouldn’t worry that it marked him as a freak.
I quit smoking in 1982—four packs of Pall Malls a day was my quota, then shazam, nothing—and went off alcohol in 2005. Both times I worried that I had cursed myself and would never write again and would need to find another career, perhaps as an inspirational speaker. But life went on much as before, except that mornings were brighter and I got to stop worrying about whether I should quit or not. That is enough reason to quit: to take the issue off the table. I who once created billows of tobacco smoke now find it irritating. The other night I absentmindedly sipped from my wife’s glass of pinot grigio and shuddered at the taste—like battery acid.
And now I trot off to the Mayo Clinic down U.S. Highway 52 from where I live in St. Paul, and they run me through rigorous tests. I seem, at age 69—knock on wood, bonk bonk bonk—not to have paid a price for those years of dissolution. An MRI here, a CT scan there, an echocardiogram, an internist listening with a stethoscope—from all reports, my heart is thumping away like a teenager’s, the arteries are clear, blood pressure is excellent, no spots darken the lungs.
Meanwhile, old friends who were athletes in high school and who worked hard to keep fit and eschewed smoking and drinking are complaining of serious stuff. These are skinny men who for 40 years have been putting on sweatpants and T-shirts and jogging a few miles. They are now staring at imminent hip replacements and unaccountably suffering from bad cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Glum talk at a party: 69-year-old men, lifelong runners and mountain climbers, now contemplating an operating table and an orthopedic surgeon whacking at them with a hammer and chisel. And then the OxyContin and long weeks of rehab. They look at me, a man whose main exercise is walking swiftly through airport concourses and whose joints work smoothly and who has thrived on a diet heavy in animal fats. The indolent prosper while the industrious exercisers endure blood full of triglycerides and 80 percent arterial blockage.
Ah, the utter unfairness of life.
I INHERITED PRETTY good genes—my mother is still motoring around at age 96, my dad lived to be 88—and then, too, I had the wherewithal to quit poisoning myself before I fell over. My friend the poet Bill Holm fell down and died at the age of 65. He was a man who maintained his regimen of whiskey and Marlboros even after his heart surgery, and who scorned moderation as the strategy of fear. Though all of us were stunned by his death, nobody was terribly surprised: What killed him was that romance of the artist dancing with death, living headlong, hurtling into the dark, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, a pork roast in the oven, a massive slab of pie on the counter. He never counted calories, never took sparkling water if beer was available.
Bill was the last of the tribe whom I knew personally: All my other writer pals are health conscious—watch their weight, exercise, pursue moderation. Bill was determined to be iconic, a Dionysian bull, a two-fisted foot-on-the-gas-pedal lover of life. I sat in the basement of a Lutheran church and listened to his funeral service, which was going on upstairs. It was a fine service, and we all walked out into the sunny March day in 2009 missing that gentle 6-foot-6-inch bear with the beard and mop of white hair, the red face.
I wished Bill could have turned away from his resolute path to the cliff. Old age would have been a blessing for him. He had much more to write—about Iceland and American politics and life on the prairie. He had come to despise teaching, which he did for most of his life, and he was overjoyed to retire. Then to fall down in the Sioux Falls airport a year after retirement, having spent most of the winter in Arizona, was a cruel, cruel end.
But I understood what drove him. And if I had been told at Mayo that I had six months to a year left on earth, I might have returned to the tribe to relive my 20s.
I’d walk away from abstinence. Trot down to the liquor store and pick up a carton of Luckies (if they still make them) and a pint of Johnnie Walker and go home to relearn the finger ballet of the cigarette and wean myself back onto alcohol. Fill up the room with smoke and feel the warm, sloshy pleasures of inebriation. An eye-opener in the morning, a martini for lunch, or two—who’s counting?—and at 5 p.m. sharp, the sun is over the yardarm, the bar is open, so belly up, gentlemen, and choose your poison.
You’re the doctor, it’s every man for himself, mud in your eye, and here’s looking at you, sweetheart. I might grow back my old beard and put on a Panama hat and write heroically again.
©2012 Garrison Keillor. Reprinted by permission of Rodale, Inc. Hear Garrison Keillor perform his story by downloading the iPad edition of Men’s Health’s September issue, on the iTunes newsstand.