It all began with Hemingway, as so many things do. Specifically with The Sun Also Rises, or, as the Brits call it, Fiesta. The latter title being apposite, because part of what I carried away from that book in my youth was the sense that drinking wine was cool and sophisticated. And let's face it, this is one of the reasons we read books, especially in our youth, particularly books by Hemingway and Kerouac and Lawrence Durrell: to find out how to live and how to pose and where to travel and what to eat and drink and smoke along the way. Everybody in Hemingway's first novel is drinking wine. Not long after my vicarious adventures in Pam- plona, this sense of wine as an appurtenance of the well-lived life was reinforced by Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, with Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte picturesquely draining the cel- lar at that estate over the course of a summer. I was so fixated on the wine and the scenery that I don't think I bothered to grasp the nature of their friendship. Not very Hemingwayesque, but again, for some reason I remember the wine . . .
The fact that wine had no place on my parents' suburban dining table seemed to confirm its consumption as a mark of sophistication. They and their friends drank cocktails--martinis, Manhattans, old-fashioneds, and stingers. And when they drank enough of them, they behaved badly, especially when they were in their stingers period, though this didn't strike me as romantic or chic. Much later I realized they were acting like the people in John Cheever's stories, once I finally got around to reading them; in fact it took me years to appreciate his writing, in part because his characters resembled my parents and their friends.
Hemingway was a great fan of Spanish rosado, which might be why, on my very first date, at the age of sixteen, I ordered a bottle of Mateus rosé, the spritzy Portuguese pink that came in a Buddha-shaped bottle. Never have I felt quite so worldly as I did that night at the Log Cabin Restaurant in Lenox, Massachusetts, as I sniffed the cork and nodded to the waiter. Many of my college romances were initiated over a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the only red wine whose name I could remember, but while lurching toward adulthood, I preferred quicker fixes, partly in the semicon- scious belief, suggested by so much of my reading, that the road of excess would lead to the palace of wisdom, that the pursuit of an artistic career as a writer required a strictly Dionysian regi- men. Manhattan in the early eighties was a congenial venue for this aesthetic program, especially if your role models included Baudelaire, Dylan Thomas, Keith Richards, and Tom Verlaine. I worked at menial editorial jobs and, briefly, as a fact-checker for The New Yorker as I did my best to infiltrate the downtown night- club scene, which I imagined to be the contemporary equivalent of Isherwood's Berlin or Lautrec's Montmartre.
Not long after I was fired by The New Yorker, I was awakened at the crack of 2:00 p.m. by a call from my best friend, who informed me that Raymond Carver was en route to my apartment. You could have knocked me over with a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill, several of which were lying on my bedside table. Jesus Christ! Raymond Carver on my doorstep? Granted, there was some context here: my best friend, Gary Fisketjon, a junior editor at Random House, had reviewed a chapbook by Carver for The Village Voice and, through his legendary champion Gordon Lish, had gotten to know him. (He would...