by Len Lear
“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens, you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens, you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens, you drink to make something happen.” — Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), a brilliant, hard-drinking poet/author/curmudgeon, in “Women.”
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow, what a ride!'” — Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005), author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and founder of “gonzo journalism.”
These quotes from the two most brilliant exponents of addle-brained, iconoclastic counter-culture screeds of the past half-century came to mind as I read “American Wino,” the phenomenally engaging and hilarious just-published (April 5) novel by Philly native and Temple University journalism graduate Dan Dunn, a “professional drunk” whose prose crackles like fire in a fireplace.
Something once said about Bukowski could also be said about Dunn in that he is someone who has a little bit of everything bad and everything good poured into the very depths of his soul. It is all mixed in, stirred up, lit on fire and left to explode. It was also said that while author Tom Wolfe mastered the technique of being a fly on the wall, Thompson mastered the art of being a fly in the ointment. I think Dan Dunn is a little of both.
When asked his age in my recent interview, Dunn replied, “I feel 30, but in truth I’m a few years older than that. Let’s go with 40-something.”
Dunn grew up in a working class Northeast Philly household. He went to Father Judge High School and graduated from Temple U. in 1991. Did he always want to be a writer? “As a kid, I wanted to be a superhero. The writer thing was my fall-back plan.”
Dunn left Philly in 1993, spent nearly five years in Aspen, Colorado, and then two years in Phoenix before relocating to California in 2000. He started writing a column called “The Imbiber” about booze for Metro International Newspapers, which became quite popular, and Playboy magazine came calling.
That led to freelance articles in Newsday, GQ magazine and several other publications. “I got those by being pushy,” he said (also by being talented). He also became a freelance joke writer for Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment for two seasons and had a “day job” as a writer for “Talk Soup.”
In the years to follow, Dunn also wrote three books, but a really bad breakup with a woman he had met a few years earlier on a plane and his brother Brian’s drowning death led to his leaving L.A. to travel to 31 states to visit wineries for months so that he could write “American Wino.” The author had me at Merlot. There are hilarious sections of the book about pretentious wine snobs and how to deal with them.
“I’ve seen guys narrow the origins of a grape down to a five-mile radius,” he writes. “Though somehow this does nothing to reduce either their pomposity or their schmuckiness. Most of the time, though, these guys are doing what we in the trade call Speaking from the Rectum.”
“American Wino” has already received a gallon jug full of rave reviews. “American Wino is just about the best road trip I’ve ever been on,” wrote Maximillian Potter, author of “Shadows in the Vineyard.” Allison Janney, Emmy Award-winning actress whom you may recall from “West Wing,” wrote that the book “is hilarious, genuine and full of wine, just like its author.”
Where was the best wine Dunn found outside of California? Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Arizona, New York and Texas. Where was the worst? Maine, Rhode Island and Montana. “But the truth is,” he said, “I loved the entire journey. It was a transformative experience.”
“American Wino” is not all hilarity. Dunn’s brother’s death and his mother’s tough life hang over the proceedings like a shroud, but in the end you’ll be convinced that everything happens for a Riesling. His mother’s relentless, unintentionally funny use of cliches is a hoot.
“Not only does my mom not read books, she doesn’t judge them by their covers. The handwriting on the wall, on the other hand…well, that marches to the beat of a different drummer and takes the bull by the horns while making lemonade out of lemons. Regardless of the situation, my mom likes to fight fire with fire, catch flies with honey rather than vinegar, and when in doubt she always, always looks before she leaps.”
I asked Dunn what was the best advice he ever received. His reply: “Never go bowling in shorts. And don’t wear flip-flops on planes.”
I asked him what his favorite movies are and why? His reply: “Pornographic movies. Because they almost always have happy endings.”
And what is Dunn’s greatest regret in life, if any? “I once bowled wearing shorts.”
Which talent that Dunn does not have would he most like to have? “I wish I knew how to write.”
What does the Philly author like to do in his spare time? “Answer Q&As while hungover.”
And what is Dunn’s most impressive characteristic? “I have nice hair.”
I don’t think Dunn would mind if I end this piece with another quote from Bukowski: “We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.”
“American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues,” published by Dey Street Books/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is available in paperback ($16.99) and as an e-book (ISBN: 978-0062394651). Dunn can be reached at twitter.com/theimbiber