In typical fashion, Tom Robbins hid behind sunglasses at the book party for his new work, B Is for Beer, held—where else?—at Brooklyn Brewery. Fans waiting in the line for beer tickets didn’t appear to notice the unassuming author. He shied away from a reporter’s interview request, but admitted that although he was about to speak briefly to the assembled audience, he didn’t yet know what he’d say.
“There’s no such thing as a bad beer, but there are bad beer drinkers,” Robbins said.
When he took the microphone, Robbins thanked the audience for coming to a party for “what amounts to just another typical children’s book about beer.” Most of the 50-odd audience members were in their 20s and early 30s—about four decades younger than Robbins. After the requisite thank-yous, he offered a rare glimpse into his personal life, a youthful brush with the law, “a misunderstanding, really, over a city councilman’s daughter and a borrowed car.” Apparently, Robbins spent 30 days in the “sissies and snitches” tank over the ordeal. He read an anecdote about the three kitchen knives and 17-inch-diameter meat slicing blade that went missing from the jail kitchen, how the wardens subjected everyone on that floor to a strip search, how he was ordered to bend over so that they could look into his “fundamental orifice” in search of the missing cutlery. The list of what they did find included “Jimmy Hoffa and his brother,” “the great American novel,” “middle-class morality” and went on, hilariously, for several minutes. Despite his reserved demeanor, Robbins is a wonderful speaker, with spot-on comic timing.
The legendary author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues says he first got the idea for a kids’ book about beer from a New Yorker cartoon depicting a conservatively dressed corporate type sitting at a bar a haggard and unshaven patron. The caption said, “I doubt that a children’s book about beer would sell,” and Robbins took that as a challenge.
Beer is one of the tamer substances Robbins has written about throughout his nearly 40-year career. The author dropped acid in the early 1960s, famously quit his job as a reporter by calling in “well,” and left grad school to become a novelist. Since then, he’s written about the mind-expanding properties of a number of drugs, including marijuana. In 2002 he told High Times that “the tiny gurus who reside in certain botanical compounds” are capable of “reinforcing, encouraging, and expanding that innate imagination that still manages to survive in a consumer society.”
Robbins holds similar views about beer. “There’s no such thing as a bad beer, but there are bad beer drinkers,” he said. In B Is for Beer, he didn’t just want to explain the history of beer to his audience, he also wanted to explore the mystery and wonder of it, its sociological implications, and the way alcohol can be used to “rearrange the furniture of the brain,” and its ability to occasionally “elevate conversation” despite alcohol’s limitations.
Billed as “a children’s book for grown-ups” and “a grown-up’s book for children,” the adorable illustrated hardback follows young Gracie Perkel’s research into how beer is made. Gracie wants to know, “What’s that stuff Daddy drinks?”—the stuff that’s “yellow and looks like pee-pee.” Uncle Moe, an antiestablishment hippie with an inherent distrust of institutions, shepherds Gracie on her quest. But when he leaves rainy Seattle with the podiatrist he falls in love with, Gracie chugs a cold one, barfs, passes out, and meets the Beer Fairy, who shows her exactly how beer is made.
If books were beers, B Is for Beer would be a pale crisp lager, in comparison to the nutty and complex stouts of Robbins’ earlier philosophical tomes. But the kernel of his unique sensibility remains in the book’s subject matter and tone. Robbins fans who attended the book party said they loved the lyricism and poetry of his writing, which is definitely present in this book. Robbins writes that Seattle’s drizzle is a “soft rain that could be mistaken for a mean case of witch measles,” and leaves “a damp gray rash on everything, as though the city were a baby that had been left too long in a wet diaper and then rolled in newspaper.”
Through Gracie’s visit with the Beer Fairy, Robbins explores the theme of the Mystery, namely the idea that the divine is present in real life and that, as the Beer Fairy puts it, adults thirst for “that alternative to the unsatisfying reality men have constructed for themselves.” According to the Beer Fairy, a foamy brew serves as the vehicle that connects people, on rare occasions, to the transcendent and the mystical.
The book’s highlight is the Beer Fairy’s meticulous and clear explanation of how beer is made, which is both fascinating and easy to understand, but it comes sandwiched within the larger story of Gracie, her insensitive dad, oblivious mother, and authorial avatar Uncle Moe. The story is quirky—Gracie has spunk, her Sunday-school teacher has breath that could “paralyze a rattlesnake,” and Uncle Moe runs off to Costa Rica with his podiatrist at the drop of a hat. However, emotional complexity is largely absent and the characters feel like placeholders, present only to further the book’s dogmatic purposes.
The beautiful language masks a schizophrenic plot. On one hand, there’s Robbins’ attempt to explain the history of beer and how it’s made; on the other hand, he wants to write a sarcastic fable that holds the readers’ narrative interest and allows him to take a couple of cheap shots at institutional religion.
Although Robbins issues a disclaimer to the effect of “kids, don’t try this at home,” the fact that 6-year-old Gracie chugs a beer, pukes, and is rewarded by a visit from the Beer Fairy speaks louder than Robbins’ warning. He also explains vocabulary inconsistently. The word “podiatrist” gets an in-text definition, but “that ethereal plateau, where, to paraphrase Baudelaire, all human whimsies float and merge” goes unexplained.
At the end of the day, The New Yorker cartoon may be right— a children’s book about beer wouldn’t sell, unless it were poetically written by Tom Robbins for a primarily adult audience. He makes a valiant effort to meld history with fairytale, but some of his readers might have preferred a cold frosty mug of narrative exposition.
Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast. She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play.