'Living Loaded': A Professional Drunk Reflects on Life

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Three Rivers Press

Dan Dunn is a liar.

A former spirits columnist for Playboy, Dunn repeatedly claims in his new memoir, Living Loaded, that he gets paid to drink. That's a lie. Dan's job isn't to drink. His job is to write about drinking, and superficially it sounds like a fantastic gig. That's certainly the opinion of Dan's friends—the lawyers, bartenders, editors, and occasional porn moguls who float through Living Loaded are continually reassuring Dunn that his life of heavy boozing, light drugging, and perpetual womanizing is every man's dream come true. No less a personage than Rob McElhenney, creator of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, says as much in an envious blurb on the book's front cover.

Dan, though, has doubts. As someone with more insight than most into how exactly, he makes his living, it's hard for me to blame him. Dan and I met a few years ago in England. Specifically, we toured England on a media junket with a bunch of other writers, guests of the French beverage giant Pernod Ricard. The idea of this particular trip was to teach us about gin, therefore making us better equipped—and more inclined—to extol its virtues in print. Toward that end, we were given tours of the Beefeater distillery in London, and the Black Friars' distillery in Devon County, home of the lesser-known, but tradition-rich Plymouth Gin.

When not learning about the spirit, we were drinking it. Lots of it. Every day, all day. For free. You'll get no sympathy for saying so, of course, but trips like this are absolutely grueling. Sure, a liquor company junket is loads of fun—a rare perk for the lowly journalist. They are emphatically, however, not for the faint of heart. Or the weak of stomach. Ask any dead rock star, or just look at Keith Richards' face, for proof living that hard will take a heavy toll. A week of it is enough to exhaust most people. Doing it regularly for 15 years—and making a living from it—demands far more than a strong constitution and way with words. It takes serious commitment. Like a football player who sells out his body on every play, consequences be damned, Dan's level of creative dissipation demands a constantly renewed commitment to living in the service of a creative ideal, and to accepting the costs with equanimity.

In the book, he describes that ideal as "The Life Gigantic." He quotes Travels with Charley to explain it, but there's little here that's Steinbeckian. Early in his career, as a columnist for the Aspen Daily News, Dan was befriended by Hunter S. Thompson, and the Good Doctor's stamp is indelibly upon him. The two are vastly different writers, certainly. Where Hunter saw himself as an agent of cosmic change—"a road man for the Lords of Karma"—Dan Dunn is mostly interested in getting laid. His methodology, though—the determination to live for the moment, every moment—is straight out of Gonzo 101.

Growing up in a rough part of Philadelphia, the son of a mentally ill mother and now-recovering alcoholic father, young Dan imagined himself as a writer. He created for himself just the sort of writerly persona that a smart, sensitive kid raised by bartenders would invent—someone with Hunter Thompson's soul, with Charles Bukowski's fists, Jimmy Breslin's heart, and Hugh Hefner's bedpost, and living in the service of Gatsby's "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty." After studying journalism at Temple, Dan moved West, first to Colorado, then Los Angeles, to embody that persona as best he could, to find some version of that dream. Outwardly, especially to hear his friends tell it, he's been a wild success.

Living Loaded begins, though, with Dan counting the costs. On the dark side of 40, he has just been dumped, ending the closest thing he has ever had to a serious, long-term relationship: living with a stripper for a few months. The passing of years, plus sweeping changes in the publishing industry, have got him questioning if the fantasy has turned sour. Unfortunately, that questioning is about as far as we get, because Living Loaded has an identity crisis. It's a drinking guide grafted onto a memoir, and ultimately the latter gets short shrift.

Dan's purview is not so much booze as the culture around it, and he's at his best dishing barroom wisdom framed as tips and tricks. After his breakup, we learn a lot about bar culture. Stuff everyone should know, too, like the section on collecting bar memorabilia, his musings on the etiquette of drunken alleyway sex, and why it's always a bad idea to order an Irish Car Bomb in Dublin. What we don't learn much about is Dan himself, and it's jarring when his real life periodically intrudes on the banter. Late in the book, that real life intrudes a great deal, but potentially moving moments like Thompson's suicide, and conversations with his mom and dad feel flat because he hasn't let readers becomes invested along the way.

On the plus side, the drinking guide aspects do work wonderfully. Living Loaded is blissfully free of snooty critic talk. The closest it comes is a section on faking your way though a wine-tasting. Dunn's style, like his subject matter, is prototypical Playboy; brash, funny, unapologetically masculine, sex-obsessed, packed with wordplay and self-referential asides, with enough pop culture references to be relevant for college kids and enough literary name-dropping to sound smart without crossing over into intellectual. Honed by Dunn's former Playboy editor Scott Alexander, the sentences pop off the page. They are tight, muscular, and always galloping forward without a wasted word.

That's usually a good thing. Especially in journalism, where space is always at a premium. Reading a book, though, is a very different experience from reading a magazine. At least, it should be. Readers want to live with a book for a while, to get lost in its atmosphere. Living Loaded, never gives us that chance. Dan may travel to Scotland and the South Pacific, bedding fabulous babes along the way, but he's in so much of a hurry to get to his tips, tricks, and punchlines that he skimps on sensory detail, and it's hard to get a feel for what any of these places or people are really like.

Living Loaded, though, wasn't written to be Serious Literature. It was written to be a little informative and a lot of fun, and it succeeds on both counts. In an age when exercise and a low-fat diet has been conflated with virtue, it's refreshing to read about some good, old-fashioned, unabashedly drunken high-jinks.

There's more on the way, too. Rob McElhenney not only wrote a blurb for the book. He and fellow Always Sunny writer Rob Rosell have partnered with Dan to create a sitcom based on Living Loaded, and (you read it here first) FOX agreed to buy the pilot. That's what our sources told us, anyway. Then again, given who's involved in the project, there's a good chance that our sources were hammered at the time.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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