Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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I read Bart Plantenga’s Beer Mystic as if it were a book, page by page, but it exists first and maybe best as an experiential experiment, a “global pub crawl” across various Web sites, linking readers to new places and people, words and voices, while giving them not only the text of the novel, in order, but also “before” and “after” examples (a glimpse into process) and the sort of motley gimcracks and goodies, blogs and radio shows, an interactive map, more facts about beer. The goal here is to create “new literary relationships across borders, oceans, beer preferences and styles,” but it’s also, surely, to push past the definition of book as just a book, to present this novel as a slurring slew of interconnected moments, visions, and drinks.
In that vein, and in order to talk about Beer Mystic, I’m going to talk about a few other things first. Because Beer Mystic is that drunk at the corner of the bar who won’t shut up, and some of his stories are hilarious, bawdy, some of his observations are brilliant, fresh, and some of what he says is so much flatulence, bordering on or crossing over into boring. He’s got a lot of trivial knowledge, especially about beer. Some of this you appreciate. Some of this, not so much. Sometimes he reminds you of your friends and sometimes he eclipses your friends and sometimes you try to drown him out so you can talk to your friends. And by “friends” here I mean, most immediately, an assortment of other texts that kept coming to mind and pulling up stools at my desk as I read and wrote out notes on Beer Mystic. James Merrill, for instance, with his The (Diblos) Notebook:
a novel, which also represents the process of composition (here also fictional, a novel about a novel’s writing) on the page, or the journal-esque volumes collected under the title Summa Atheologica, by George Bataille, also invested in drinking and mysticism (and puking, and laughter, and sex, and darkness), or that mash-up of criticism and fiction that Stephen Pfohl sets in a café but might as well have put in a pub, deconstructing society and social analysis on one carnivalesque bender. There’s more than a shot, too, of Kerouac in these pages, the Kerouac of wild sketches and intoxicated word play, which sometimes soared (there’s that rooster described as a “seminal gysmal champion who dreams a daily egg for Tristessa that she sucks out the end after a little puncture, fresh,” in Tristessa) but which sometimes fell flatter than stale beer (thus earning this stylish rebuke from Ginsberg, in a letter: “...jeez, Joyce did it, but you’re juss crappin around thoughtlessly with that trickstyle often, and it’s not so good.”). Imagine a bar with these people in it when Beer Mystic walks in. Who wouldn’t order another and stick around to be part of that?
So at the center of the plot of Beer Mystic is a figure of the same title, one Furman Pivo by name, who begins to read significance into chance experience, or, perhaps, to experience significant phenomenon under the guise, at first, of mere coincidence. He lives in New York in the Reagan era, and he has a bone to pick with the city and, more specifically, with its lights. “Light pollution is the moral equivalent of urinating against Stonehenge. The night and its surfeit of stars and heavenly bodies is now lost to 90% of Americans!” he laments, then lapsing into statistics and a screed against “sports stadiums, shopping malls, highways, and billboards.” On the mystical front, “The Greeks believed the dark of night was the precursor of all things creative,” and this drunk agrees. “Night is the thin membrane between two orifices, and when I lean into this membrane I can feel you feeling me.”
Darkness and dream are related, here, to inebriation, and this itself is a response to the perceived oppressions of the city. “Beer and allied spirits are the only contrivances left to us that effectively, albeit only momentarily, slow down the spin New York puts on our reality.” Here is a New York full of “necropolitans, lightheaded from the toxic bouquets of fresh candy-colored car enamels,” a city in the shadows of “Mad. Ave towers of hazy mirror with their ad agencies, numbers crunchers, body bag designers, and money launderers,” a city where, from “In the Electro-Lux shop window, a new TV is broadcasting a repeat of a ‘Montel Williams Show’ where he interviews people who treat their pets as children.” There’s an anger at rich ad writers and execs and toward some vague status quo, plus real tension with those working class guys who “come in early with their rolled up New York Posts, lay claim to their chunk of bar, their stools, their piles of sharp objects and musty misconceptions” and fantasies not shared by our protagonist, who nonetheless claims “maybe I consider this place a microcosm of the world—and this is stretching it—if I can understand and conquer this place I can do the same outside.”
Except that’s not the mission here, empathy, nor anything like real political critique. Our hero was once associated with a circle of poets who came up with a project called “Adopt-a-Homeless-Person [aka Rent-a-Hobo],” the concept being “that towns all over America adopt one certified real NY homeless person each and give him or her the personal care s/he needed to live a more dignified life,” which sounds both condescending and like a possible practical action, except “that was just a chuckle, a conceptual distraction—especially when you don’t get press or funding.” The poor and homeless of Reagan’s America, in these pages, are even less of a concern. The mystic wanders, drunk, witnessing street crime and ambient violence, but remains largely insulated from it, theorizing, at best, that “The Crack Cartel, with its hierarchical dreams, is a strange and terrifying yet logical affirmation of Capitalism around here. Its get-rich-quick schemes pushed three or four notches beyond even those of the infomercial and the telemarketer’s repertoire,” which is both on to something and too-cutely dismissive of the wider, urgent issue. He quotes Paul Virilio a few times and seems more concerned with what he takes to be the corrupt obsession with surface, with representation, than he does about, say, the old historical-material this-and-that (despite some references to “working-class beer”). War is on the television, then a commercial break. War is in the ghetto, but there are also dogs, and the Beer Mystic has all kinds of ideas about dogs. He might imagine fleeting glimpses of others (“A sill full of plastic flowers held a woman who keeps bacon fat in a milk carton by the stove. Her eyes resembled lakes full of blindfish, full of that peculiar American emotion—exhausted discontent”) but his only real interaction with other folks is in the bar or in the bedroom, over drinks or through sex.
What Furman Pivo knows is beer. He knows its etiquette and the notion of “Consumption as art”: “Do not pour beer down glass sides; pour beer gently in center of glass to produce necessary head. Head enhances bouquet and allows CO2 to escape, preventing flatulence . . . Taste beer slowly with some swish and swill. It should have a chewy thick aspect to it.” He knows its chemistry: “Alcohol tells the pituitary gland to suppress vasopressin production. Lower vasopressin means that the water no longer returns to the body and the kidneys send urine directly to the bladder,” for instance, though we learn, too, about the stimulation, by alcohol, of dopamine, “and since dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and bravado to motivate us to do certain things we would not necessarily end up doing otherwise,” followed fast by the fact that “Alcohol stimulates secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. This causes nerves to send messages to the brain that the stomach’s contents are detrimental to the body and must be discharged via vomiting.” He knows it history: Once, we are told, monks
knew beer had strange illuminating properties, and that’s why they considered beer a divine libation. That’s why the earliest breweries were also places of worship.... [but] eventually, priests and popes condemned the intake of beer and the peculiar exaltation it produced because it came too close to suggesting divinity.... Beer used to be poured onto fields to bless the harvest. After which, farmers masturbated on their fields to doubly ensure an abundant harvest.
He can take a stab at its sociology: “A bar is a safe warren where engaged disputation prevents words from collapsing all around us.” And he can even muse on its symbolic value while making thrifty suggestions for home economy:
I was mixing black and tans in honor of the mulatto affair I was having with Nice [as in N-I-ce]. Black and tans are a co-mingling of two distinct beer cultures, two distinct tastes, two distinct aliens to each other. Dusk in the time of brew. It was also a very frugal way to enhance cheap beer: a 6 pak [sic] of Pütscht at $1.99 plus a pint bottle of Guinness at $2.00 and voila, a pauper drinks like a king. A sweet and noble delusionary concoction was never had for so little. Guinness, just FYI, had a brewery in Long Island City from 1939 to 1954.
See how the history burps itself in there, at the end? This guy just can’t stop. And most of all, what he knows—and revels in—is “the fecund mysticism of brew.”
This mysticism is both the driving thread of the novel (“Synchrony between the mind and the phenomenal world of perception may be the key; but where’s the keyhole?” he wonders aloud, then proceeds to search for it at the bottom of the next pint glass) and intrinsic to the mystic’s relations with women (no chaste monk, he), of which there are quite a few. Those of blessed memory are remembered via a collection of beer bottles linked to the nationality or ethnicity or state of origin of the woman in question, a link between two forms of consumption. There is plenty of in-the-moment sex here, too, especially oral sex, plus a tug or two of masturbation. When a model leaves a lingerie catalogue with her own picture pages dog-eared, what else is there to do? Well, drink of course: “To her, I make a toast with my Hoegaarden witbier with its light clovish scent, pale color, small head, intense feminine teasing sparkle and complexity. It is usually served in a tall vase-glass with a slice of lemon clinging to the rim. And that is exactly how I have it.” He has others in all sorts of ways, women with exceptional talents (one can “flex muscles down there, make her labia perform like the lips of a fish. We made love or something like it. We had sex. Or sex had us.”) and a woman with a certain ugly rage (“She taunting me with ‘Flacido Domingo,’ displaying contempt for any signs of flaccidness or tumescence. And you could see that her ability to have an orgasm was based on the dynamic level of despising she could muster.”) There’s burlesque and grotesque and carnival (later there’s even a wax museum), and there are interjections from other characters, too—including these women—in brackets, adding a level of commentary in and to the text.
All of this is rollicking, sometimes intoxicating, sometimes way too much. Beer Mystic, the book, is like that drunk at the corner of the bar, sometimes your pal, sometimes a comedian, sometimes a prophet, and sometimes gurgling like a radiator that you can’t shut off. “Her mouth like a pair of dull scissors gnawing through coarse fabric,” is one gorgeous description from these pages, but not everything in these two hundred plus pages hits a note near that. We hear a tantalizing tidbit about Karma the Seer, who, in Chicago in the ‘50s “told fortunes by reading the tracings of foam clinging to the sides of your beer glass called Belgian lace, all while promoting Superior Beer, which, it seemed, had the perfect foamy head...” and we get descriptions like this, of a man who places “his chummy hand directly upon my thigh like an octopus salad spilled into my lap.” This is probably a good book to drink with (or drink to: the index has names of beers in bold for easy cross-referencing with such a task), but it can also feel like a binge, in the bad way. Here, by way of last call, is a draft from fairly early on, a scene on the Brooklyn Bridge that captures something of the hyper-literate weave of Pivo’s tight and talkative mind:
I look back, veer, amble, cling—will I or could I throw myself over the railing? It is the same feeling that I have in a glassware or lighting store or on top of the WTC. The idea of my body suddenly rebelling against my sense of survival to go amok. I contemplate Tuli Kupferberg’s dilemma when in the 1950s he threatened to jump off the bridge. I can see where Hart Crane lived from here. I can see him curled up inside himself under the Brooklyn Bridge either calmed by ‘the whispered rush, telepathy of wires’ or by the fact that he had finally caught the bridge in the formaldehyde of words. Crane’s home is now home to a poetess—what’s her name? Cruella Seville? No? Something like that—who tries to maintain a certain elegance to her sexual desperation by acting like she is still capable of summing up sexual satisfaction at the drop of an eyelid. A cross between Phoebe Legere and a cast-off slipper. Like her wink is hooked directly into your erectile tissue. This is not true although to allow her this charade is one way we at parties allow her to remain somewhat intact. OK, babe, you’re still a goddess, now where’s the beer. The dignity of the unstated. Myth wrapped tightly around skin to maintain freshness. I remember weak light coming through dingy glass, revealing her riding a sort of surrogate, a leather pommel she had sawed off a discarded saddle she’d found in the street. She reading some Kiki de Montparnasse stuff on this saddle was what she called spoken performance. She can ride all the way back to her childhood for all I care. I do not know where Thomas Wolfe lived. It’s somewhere over in the cute collapsing red brick in Brooklyn Heights. He laid one million words end to end but where did it go?”