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Friday, May 31, 2013

Strange Wonders: Beer Fiction From Evan Rail

Triplebock
Evan Rail, 61 pages
Digital edition: $4

This is going to get long-winded, so I'll put the upshot right here at the top.  Evan Rail has out the third in his series of digital-only small books, but this one's a rarity--beer-centered fiction.  It's just three stories long, less than the price of a pint, and a wonderful choice for, say, that flight from Portland to Chicago.  You don't have to know anything about beer or be interested in it particularly, but for those who are, the stories add a layer of pleasure.  In addition to his work writing about Czech beer, Evan has published poetry and he has a gift for language.  He is especially good at inhabiting a different voice for each of the narrators of the three stories--a young homebrewer, a feral speculative fiction-writer, and a monk.  Good stuff I highly recommend.

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There's that old joke--dying is easy; comedy is hard.  So is fiction--well, good fiction, anyway.  Focus tends to drift to plot, but that's the easy part. The difficult part is making the elaborate lie convincing.  It's part dream-weaving, part con job; the world must be fully-realized, constructed without flaws, and the protagonist has to talk and behave like a real person.  Make the slightest mistake and the illusion collapses.  The writer must remain behind the curtain, as well, spinning metaphor and simile well enough that you aren't reminded there's a little man back there pulling levers.

Triplebock contains three unrelated stories told by and about three very different men.  In the first story, which concerns the activities of a homebrewer young enough to still be living at home, protagonist Patrick is new to the world, feeling his way along as young men do.  He knows what he knows--brewing in Patrick's case--but the rest of the world he regards as a riddle yet to be solved.  The riddle of "The Grain Men" has a supernatural cast, and makes for perhaps the most satisfying plot of the three stories.

When you don't know a writer, you give him less rope.  I thought Patrick might have been a slightly reworked Evan Rail, and I smiled at the end of "The Grain Men."  It was written in the third person but otherwise had those markers of a fictionalized true story.  But I began reevaluating when I got to the second story, "An All-Beer Diet."  This was the story, told in the intimacy of first person, involves a particular kind of lout I have had some experience with: the jerk writer.  These are guys who are simultaneously a raw nerve of insecurity and incredible egotists.  D.K. Graeber is both a casual and quirky writer, but also a guy who secretly harbors the belief he's a gonzo Faulkner.  The story's set-up is that he's going to do lent on nothing but beer (a story we've become familiar with) as a PR stunt.  It rolls out from there as a character study.  His buddy's a more successful writer, and here's Graeber in one choice passage:
Since Todd was officially a fraud, cribbing a few lines from his agent’s press release didn’t feel so bad. It was more like the voice of the thing I copied, anyway, which was just so much more feminine than anything I could ever write. Todd could probably pull it off — frankly, his stuff can be quite girlish — but my prose cracks and blisters, roughneck.
It's really fun writing, again filled with lovely little details that make it seem wholly real.  But I was less fooled this time: these were not fictionalized accounts of the same person, not by a long shot.  The final story drives that point home.  Evan imagines the world of a very slowly dying European abbey with just a handful of brothers and an urgent need for funds.  They decide to get into the brewing game, relying on a confident outsider.  Again written in the first person, this story imagines the world of a modern monk trying to keep a tradition alive.  I have maybe too much knowledge about the subject here and there were a few details I questioned (it's likely I'm one of the few who will), but I was touched by his treatment of the reverent protagonist.  And this one especially seems as far from Evan--not to mention the two characters in the other stories--as one could imagine.  An impressive feat of empathy and imagination.

I feel I have to say something negative about the effort just for balance, so here it is: the titles suck.  That's about all I got.  As someone who has a hard time with titles myself, I recognize too-literal titling when I see it.  The cover of the book is a little under-designed, too, for my tastes.  But you see, when all you can complain about are titles and design, you're dealing with a pretty solid book.  And so it is.

1 comment:

Doug Sottoway said...

Perfect timing on this post Jeff! Thanks! I've got a long flight tomorrow. Doug

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