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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Book Reviews: Creative Writing With Evan Rail, Max Bahnson, and Alan McLeod

The world of readin' and writin' has been in flux for about a decade now.  The gatekeeper model--print magazine, paper, and book publishers--has broken down.  That means writers now have a more direct avenue to reach readers--one they've happily seized for shorter forms.  In the beer world, the leading pioneer has been Evan Rail; just less than three years ago, he put out Why Beer Matters on Kindle, and suggested that there might be an alternative to the New York publishing mafia.

The emergence of digital publishing has had two important effects.  Books always needed to be a certain length to justify a cover price that paid for an author, several editors, an art department, and a marketing team needed to sell them.  When you're publishing your own pieces directly, you can sell them for a dollar or few, which means they can be short.  Why Beer Matters is just 22 pages long--way too short for a regular book, but too long for a blog post.  In many cases, this frees up an author to either tackle a subject that would never have justified a book, or to skip the inevitable padding needed to fatten up a regular book.  The second benefit is that it also frees up the author--for the same reasons--to try something less obviously commercial and marketable.  We have two recent examples that I've been meaning to review here: Evan Rail's latest, The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest, and The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer by Alan McLeod and Max Bahnson.


The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer
Kindle/Digital only, 149 pages, $4 

We have to start this review, as with all reviews, with Steven Soderbergh.  Back in 1997, he released a movie you may have missed called SchizopolisSchizopolis was weird.  It was aggressively noncommercial.  It looked like a student project.  It eventually made a whopping ten grand at the box office (12,000th all time!)  I went to a screening in Portland, and Soderbergh answered questions afterward.  They were mainly of the "what the hell ...?" variety.  It turned out that he had reached a kind of creative exhaustion.  Following Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he made a series of meh big-company movies, and the grind of working in the Hollywood mode drained him of the will to make movies.  He needed a chance to hit the reset, to have 100% control and make a cinematic primal scream.  No one has ever seen Schizopolis, but the movies that followed--Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, and Traffic--are among the best four-movie runs in history. 

The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is a literary Schizopolis.  The authors are two bloggers you probably know if you read Beervana much: Max Bahnson and Alan McLeod.  They share a distaste for beer boosterism and, even more, dislike how that boosterism interferes with what they see as beer's true joy--the simple pleasures of drinking it and sharing it with friends.  That's a heterodox view in the beer-writing world, and the form Alan and Max chose to express it is nearly as weird as Schizopolis: a fictive dialogue between the two shared in various fictive settings.  Thomas Hardy gets quoted; Beckett gets alluded to (I think).  There's a fragment from Alexander Pope.  In one chapter, we get stage direction and a script.  There are direct message exchanges and Twitter exchanges. 

All of these techniques are harnessed to give voice to a cri de coeur aimed at the myriad offenses of beer geeks.  They don't want to give us a didactic, reasoned argument, they want to give spleen.  The effect is curious:
While Alan looked for the opener, Max picked the bottle to study the back label. Other than the ABV% there was not much that he considered very useful information. It wasn’t until he took a second look at the front label that he noticed the two words: “Imperial Pilsner”.

“F'ing 'Imperial Pilsner'! The ‘style’ born by ignorance and plain stupidity. You brought me here for this?" Alan shrugged in reply. "A bock with more hops and less sense. Don’t you have anything else?” Max continued, complaining, holding the bottle with one hand and his head with the other. With a shrug Alan gave him the opener and let the man do the honours. The Argentine made a big show of sniffing the beer, taking a short sip, he rolled it in his mouth, gargled a bit and declared with mocked solemnity, “not true to style.”
It is actually the didactic argument, but placed in fictional settings--in a work absent any of the usual trappings of fiction, like plot, climax, or denouement.  If you read it either to hear the argument or to be entertained by the settings, though, I think you miss the point.  The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is a howl, a primal expression.  You are meant to understand the writers' emotion, not pay close attention to their words. Their real point is implicit and concealed--the joy of beer is in the negative space between the words.

As a work, it is aggressively noncommercial.  No publisher on the planet would have touched it.  But that's what makes it a fascinating artifact of the modern age.  I'm not sure who the audience is or how big it is, but for the souls who find pleasure and solace in this work suffice it to say they have little recourse elsewhere.  This is a strange, singular book.

The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest
Kindle/Digital-only, 60 pages, $3.

Evan Rail's contribution is much less mystifying.  Although it is ostensibly a story about Kout na Šumavě, a mysterious, remote Bohemian brewery, it's really a memoir describing a person's relationship to beer.  In this way, it shares something with Unbearable Nonsense.  Evan is more conventionally excavating his own experience to learn what it is, really, that brings beer alive in his life.  Beer is oddly intimate, and Evan uses his interaction with Kout to slowly reveal why.

Evan is one of the beer world's real writing stars.  His prose sings, and as with any good memoir, it's the story that draws the reader in.  There's a central plot point that he uses like a spine to support the body of his story, and in the following short passage, you can get a sense of how he sets up his page-turner:
“Trash still carpeted the furnace room when they arrived, the light coming in through windowless frames and the empty spaces where rusty hinges would have creaked and grated, if only the doors had remained. Around the old steam furnace, thick layers of plaster had cracked open, presumably with the heavy frosts of the previous winters, and the strata of stucco that had been built up around the furnace as insulation lay open and exposed. One of the layers, however, glowed just slightly differently: instead of brick or stone, it looked more like fabric, or even papyrus. The men brushed away the mortar and paint, scratching their own coarse fingers on the equally coarse rocks and crystals in the plaster. Eventually, enough of it gave way, and they were able to remove a thick book that must have been waiting there for many decades, disguised in the thickness of the wall.”
There's a chapter on Anthony Bourdain that doesn't really work and could be skipped entirely, but otherwise, it's a little gem of a book. We are attracted to a lot of lesser things in life--our favorite baseball team, a hobby, movies or video games--but so few of them rouse an emotional response like beer does.  The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest goes a long way to explaining this, at least for one person.  It's the first release of what will apparently be a series of similar pieces in a "Beer Trails" series--and it's a great start.


For different reasons, neither of these works would have existed ten years ago.  Evan's book is too short, and Max and Alan's is too odd.  But both deserve a chance to find an audience, and I hope they do.  The more diversity we have available for readers, the better.  And as a bonus, little works like this can be had on the cheap--less than the price of a pint.


  1. I thought you reviewed Max and Alan's book a while back. Maybe not. I thought it was a terrific hoot when I read it, unfortunately scarred by a lack of editing. I wrote a piece on m blog and eventually got some comments back from the authors, who said they were gong to have the thing cleaned up. I suspect that's what they did. Definitely worthwhile reading and recommended.

  2. He definitely mentioned the book a while back. Don't remember if he reviewed it though.