Last Call at Elaine’s

The ten-year span from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s of the recently deceased century was surely nobody?s Golden Age. Yet every era encompasses revelatory moments of whimsy and glory, farce and tragedy, art and pathos, enough to cobble together a Silver Age — or at least a Brass — periods perhaps ultimately more charming and real in their all-too-human catalog of failure and second-rate achievements than those rare halcyon times when impossible deities held court. Such is the decayed milieu captured in the pages of Brian McDonald?s twin-tracked memoir. From 1986 until 1997, McDonald tended bar at the legendary dining and drinking establishment founded by Elaine Kaufman in 1963. For a time Elaine’s had been the hippest of in-spots, drawing the famous, the near-famous, and the infamous into its unassuming ambiance at Second Avenue and 88th Street in New York City. When McDonald began his tenure there, the place was in a slump. He describes nights barren of customers, with Elaine a morose and wounded presence. The book offers a sympathetic but unsparing portrait of the proprietor as a charming heap of neuroses and bravado, living solely for her restaurant, unable to occupy herself on the two nights each year it was closed. The tale of the prickly friendship between owner and barkeep is matched by jaded yet earnest depictions of Elaine?s colorful clientele. Deftly intertwined with the saga of the bar and its denizens is McDonald’s own Bukowskian life story: professional bartender at 18; full-fledged alcoholic as a young adult; then 14 years of sobriety, education, and writerly success, leading to relapse and a second recovery. Like his idols Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, McDonald employs street-smart prose to good effect, creating a fascinating account of the not-so-lush life.