With focused premise and expansive feeling, Rosie Schaap’s memoir, “Drinking With Men,’’ blends her accounts of growing up as a woman and as a drinker. “I’ve come of age in bars,” she writes, “and they’ve given me as much of an education as college did, and have fostered many of my strongest friendships.” On the book’s first page, Schaap, who tends bar part time and writes a column about alcohol for The New York Times Magazine, estimates that she’s spent 13,000 hours at bars in her lifetime.
But “Drinking With Men’’ is not an addiction memoir — it’s an autobiographical treatise. “It seems to me that someone ought to defend the great tradition of regularhood,” Schaap asserts, “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.”
In 10 chapters — each devoted to a particular bar that for a time Schaap called a second home — “Drinking With Men’’ narrates an unconventional life (of a fortune teller-turned-Deadhead-turned-grad-student-turned-community-organizer-turned-writer) while also championing everything from “[b]eing neighborly” to the ability to hold one’s own in spontaneous, often out-of-control conversations with semi-strangers.
Schaap traces her affection for bars to high school, when she rode the train to her therapist and bartered Tarot readings for passengers’ beer. Seduced by the banter and what she later comes to call “a kind of controlled, convivial shallowness,” Schaap proves a quick convert.
In traditional style Schaap tells stories of her hard-partying youth in California, her summer abroad in Dublin, and love affair there with an older poet, of her sudden divorce, her response to Sept. 11, her religious awakening, her burgeoning soccer fandom. All objectively compelling subjects.
But this cozy book — her first — is most interesting when Schaap is not reflecting directly upon herself. A first-person approach is irresistible to many writers — and readers. That Schaap is most fluent and most nuanced not when talking about her life, but when making an argument for a certain kind of life, is gratifying. “Drinking With Men’’ is a book whose best parts are also its most fun to read parts, an unexpectedly rare virtue in memoir.
Schaap’s biographical details pale in comparison to her frequent, always insightful analysis of bar culture, which she writes is “at its best . . . is both civilized and civilizing.” She articulates the pleasures and pains of bar culture, knowing that extolling the virtues of whiling away hours moderately — or very — intoxicated seems counterintuitive “in a culture obsessed with health and work.” But drinking in the company of others — mostly men, it turns out — is really not about drinking so much as it is about talking at a place that is “not home and not school and not the office.”
Put that way, it’s impossible to see bars as seedy time-drains, as many of her peers do. When a bar friend dies, she finds it difficult to explain her grief to co-workers, many of whom believed that “the affinities upon which friendships are based should be prescribed by having gone to the same school or working in the same field.” Bars, Schaap convincingly argues, are an underappreciated social space, one that women are often denied. “[A] solitary woman at a bar is a curiosity,” Schaap writes, “a wonderment to be puzzled over.’’
There are moments of self-aggrandizement, but they are relatively rare and overshadowed by very smart assessments of a mode of being that’s not given the credit it deserves. “Drinking With Men’’ would pair very well this time of year with a well-aged whiskey and a handful of peanuts.
Alice Gregory is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.