Bet­ter latte than never

How Star­bucks Saved My Life By Michael Gates Gill Ban­tam, 267pp, $ 34.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­tonella Gam­botto- Burke

MICHAEL Gates Gill, son of The New Yorker writer and critic Bren­dan Gill, may be just the lit­er­ary fig­ure­head for the new First World vogue for neoAu­gus­tinian piety. There have been in­di­ca­tions that such a genre was un­der way: think Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich’s bril­liantly edgy ex­pose of un­skilled labour con­di­tions, the best- sell­ing Nickel and Dimed: On ( Not) Get­ting By in Amer­ica , and Melissa Plaut’s square- shoot­ing Hack: How I Stopped Wor­ry­ing About What to Do with My Life and Started Driv­ing a Yel­low Cab . But Star­bucks will be re­mem­bered as the lodestar: the tale of how a rich, white, suc­cess­ful, Yalee­d­u­cated sex­a­ge­nar­ian opted for me­nial labour over in­vol­un­tary re­tire­ment, golf and death.

Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures op­tioned Star­bucks in pro­posal form; Gus Van Sant and Tom Hanks are pen­cilled in as di­rec­tor and lead ac­tor re­spec­tively. Their en­thu­si­asm is easy to un­der­stand. The mem­oir’s premise is, in th­ese con­ser­va­tive times, revo­lu­tion­ary: what hap­pens when an in­sider turns the cap­i­tal­ist canon on its head? When the com­pla­cent scion of a pa­tri­ar­chal elite re­jects, in the flower of his post­tumes­cent panic, ev­ery so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion? When a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive vice- pres­i­dent for ad­ver­tis­ing gi­ant J. Wal­ter Thompson dons an apron to serve cof­fee un­der the tute­lage of a young wo­man?

In ev­ery re­spect other than lit­er­ary — the neo­phyte Gill is a sin­cere but medi­ocre stylist — Star­bucks is a pro­foundly coura­geous mem­oir and loud in its ad­vo­cacy of con­scious rein­car­na­tion, al­beit within the con­fines of a sin­gle life. The nar­ra­tive com­pels.

Af­ter 25 years at the heart of the es­tab­lish­ment, Gill is sacked. He strug­gles with a con­sul­tancy busi­ness and fails, does not cope well with leisure or with the sud­den avalanche of ex­po­sure to his wife, and has an af­fair with a fortysome­thing pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try who claims to be in­fer­tile. Pre­dictably, this ex­tra­mar­i­tal union pro­duces a child — Jonathan — and Gill’s wife files for di­vorce.

His four adult chil­dren side with their mother. The pro­fes­sor de­cides he is bor­ing as both man and lover. Gill is then di­ag­nosed with a small brain tu­mour. Ship­wrecked, he fi­nally be­gins to ex­am­ine his life.

I flew many hun­dreds of thou­sands of miles to spend time with my clients,’’ he writes, and hardly saw my chil­dren. My clients be­came my chil­dren, and my chil­dren grew up with­out me . . . Like many men of my gen­er­a­tion ac­cept­ing the role of bread­win­ner, I ra­tio­nalised my de­vo­tion to work and trust in ( cor­po­rate life).’’

He re­mem­bers his priv­i­leged youth in New York City and the African- Amer­i­can wo­man who changed him. He writes:

My par­ents al­ways seemed to be go­ing out to cock­tail par­ties and din­ners. I was a lonely lit­tle boy. As usual, they were not home when I re­turned on the bus from Buck­ley School, but there was Nana, as al­ways, wait­ing for me with arms out­stretched and a big smile on her face. I rushed into her com­modi­ous bo­som.

This old wo­man was the love of my young life . . . I spent all of my time with her in the warm and de­li­cious- smelling base­ment kitchen, im­i­tat­ing Char­lie Chap­lin and mak­ing her laugh . . . I had buck teeth and big ears, but Nana said, ‘‘ You are a hand­some boy.’’

Like Gill, Nana was sacked be­cause of her age. It is only when he finds him­self in Star­bucks nurs­ing a latte he can no longer com­fort­ably af­ford that he sud­denly feels the hole in my heart’’ for a wo­man he hasn’t seen for al­most 60 years. Which is why when a young, black fe­male Star­bucks em­ployee asks if he wants a job — un­wit­tingly, Gill has stum­bled into an open­hir­ing sit­u­a­tion — he im­me­di­ately trusts her and replies in the af­fir­ma­tive.

Through the per­for­mance of os­ten­si­bly de­mean­ing tasks such as toi­let- clean­ing, Gill re­alises that the only real love of his adult life was his sta­tus in the eyes of other men. Clients such

as Ford, Burger King, Chris­tian Dior, the US Marine Corps and IBM had as­sumed a near­reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance in his uni­verse, bathed as they were in the aura of cor­po­rate sig­nif­i­cance. Born to the world of su­per­fi­cies, he also re­mem­bers throw­ing ap­ples as a boy at Ezra Pound on a Con­necti­cut dock, meet­ing the

jolly’’ Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot, dis­cussing drinks with W. H. Au­den, ir­ri­tat­ing the Queen at a gar­den party, and fall­ing a lit­tle in love with Jackie Onas­sis (‘‘ There was also a se­duc­tive sex­i­ness about her one- on- one that no cam­era could re­ally cap­ture’’). Gill’s finest anec­dote con­cerns Ernest Hem­ing­way, with whom he spent time in Pam­plona in 1959.

Those big par­ties, and th­ese lit­er­ary celebri­ties, re­ally meant very lit­tle to me,’’ he con­cludes. I would have pre­ferred more time alone with my fa­ther.’’

Gill is not com­pletely suc­cess­ful in mak­ing amends with his fam­ily, but he does suc­ceed, fi­nally, in be­ing true to him­self. Since birth I had been placed on an up­ward es­ca­la­tor re­served for those few af­flu­ent, prop­erly ed­u­cated, well­spo­ken and well- dressed peers who would never stop as­cend­ing,’’ he un­der­stands, and no one seemed to have been able to help me or even re­ally no­tice my great dis­tress and ba­sic needs.’’

is a beau­ti­ful book that speaks not only to those who no longer be­lieve they have any­thing to of­fer, but to ev­ery­one who en­joys an un­ex­pect­edly af­fect­ing story.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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