I’m sitting at on a Wednesday evening with Dennis Foley, a quintessential South Side guy, talking about his book The Drunkard’s Son.
Chicago’s version of Angela’s Ashes, the book recounts Foley’s Irish-American rambling childhood from St. Sabina’s Parish to Hometown.
His father, John Francis Foley, a polio survivor, casts a shadow over the part-memoir-part-not’s early chapters until he disappears from his six children’s lives, dying at age 43 of alcoholism in 1972.
“Dad bounced around tied with the booze,” Foley says, taking a swig of Blue Moon. “He was one of those guys destined to fall. He had polio as a kid, which very few people recovered from, but he came back and walked in high school. He was used to everyone taking care of him, but he didn’t know how to take care of others.”
“My two older brothers were fantastic athletes,” Foley said. “My brother Tim was like a man-child and was in the same grade as Kevin. He played on the same basketball team with Tim at Our Lady of Loretto. Kevin liked it because they always won. He said my brother would score 45 points and everyone else would score five.”
The Dunkard’s Son features 40 vignettes of life on Chicago’s South Side in the 1960s and 1970s, where Foley, 51, a gifted storyteller, grew up with two brothers and three sisters in a succession of second-floor apartments. His dad had an aversion to first-floor apartments, which he thought susceptible to burglars and robbers, and didn't want to haul "crap" up to third-floor apartments because the family moved around so much. The second floor was just fine for the Foley family.
He says that 85 percent of his fictive memoir actually happened, but he didn’t want to get into a situation like James Frey, whose memoir as a 23-year-old drug and alcohol abuser in A Million Little Pieces was discovered to be partly fabricated.
The part of The Drunkard’s Son that is true is how Foley got stabbed at age 15 near Marquette Park while a sophomore at St. Laurence High School in Burbank. As the 15-year-old Foley recovers from a punctured lung, he looks back on his childhood spending Saturdays at the local tavern with his dad so his father would remember to come home to his family.
“Many people have written about the South Side as their tale of woe,” Foley said. “One of the things I wanted to do was take a different look at it. There is the separate story in the intensive care unit. I wanted to use that as something different, a launching pad to tell the other stories.”
Whether getting stabbed was a wakeup call, Foley grew up to earn a law degree defending drunks on Western Avenue while working for the state’s attorney’s office, became a writer, and coached and taught English at St. Laurence in Burbank, where he attended high school.
Living in the cramped confines of Chicago’s South Side among bungalows, three- and six-flats, he recalls the Foley family’s first trek into the suburbs as being quite the shift.
“St. Sabina was a great place. That’s what I remembered as a kid,” he said. “We moved a bunch within the same two blocks. Hometown was our first time going to suburbs. It was shocking looking around. At the time everything was white – white houses, white garages, white fences and white faces.”
Although he kept it out of the book, Foley remembers a pistol being out the night he got stabbed. One of his friends hit a guy with the gun and it fell into a sewer.
“No one saw the knife,” he said. “When it happened, people looked at me and right then the cops came down the alley. I’m taking off and all of a sudden I can’t move anymore.”
His friends brought him to Holy Cross Hospital and left him in the emergency room. He said he was “kind of bombed” in the emergency room, having drank a 12-pack of beer. A doctor came along and hammered a rod into his chest while he was under a local anesthetic because he had too much alcohol in his system to be put under.
“I was screaming and that’s when I went out,” he said. “I woke up the next morning.”
After teaching English at St. Laurence for seven years, Foley left last year. He plans to continue coaching, freelancing and practicing law on the side.
His first book is the well-known The Streets and San Man’s Guide to Chicago Eats, which he wrote while attending Columbia College and working for the city’s streets and sanitation department.
He’s lived in Beverly for the past 20 years with his wife and two sons, because it reminded him of the St. Sabina neighborhood he grew up in, even though he didn’t like his house at first.
“There were 50 kids running around the block and people hanging out in the front yard,” he said. “I had two kids, 2 years old and one just born. I thought, this is where I’d like to raise my kids.”