Yesterday, I talked about how Captian Freedom inspired me to walk down to the local Barnes & Noble in a quest to find a truly funny book. This is no easy task. After a long diversion in the DVD section (where Kiss Kiss Bang Bang finally found its way into my permanent collection), I spent an inordinately long time wandering through the book section. At one point, I walked past an endcap with a few Tom Robbins books on it. As I continued my quest to find a funny book, I began to realize how much I really missed Tom Robbins.
Back in college, my gal at the time introduced me to Robbins with Still Life with Woodpecker. I fell utterly in love with it, and devoured the book like a third-grader on sloppy joe day, promptly moving on to read all of his other books (except for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues which, for some reason, I still haven’t read). Jitterbug Perfume is maybe his objectively best book, although Skinny Legs and All is my personal favorite (among other reasons because a dirty sock, a spoon and a can of beans are major characters). Anyway, after indecisively walking up and down the same book aisles several times over, I eventually wondered over to the little Tom Robbins section. I had decided that I was going to end my quest by either giving Cowgirls a whirl, re-reading one of the ones I loved (my copies are all old and yella’ at this point), or trying to reread his most recent two fiction books (Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates and Villa Incognito, both of which I failed to finish the first-time around).
And that’s when I discovered that Mr. Robbins has a new book out, the thin little B is for Beer. As the book explains on its cover, it’s both a children’s book for grown-ups and a grown-up book for children.
The book’s about five-going-on-six-year-old Gracie Perkel, a kindergartner who loves pop tarts and mornings in Seattle, where the ever-gray drizzle “has the ability to melt the shadow between Our World and the Other World.” Thanks to her Uncle Moe, Gracie develops an infatuation with facts about, and the history of, beer, and she eventually winds up taking the kind of fantastical voyage only the luckiest of children get to experience. While B is for Beer is about Gracie, it’s also, unsurprisingly, a book about beer itself, about the beer making process, the cultural import of beer and the Magic of beer.
When I got home from the bookstore, I cracked the book open, unsure exactly how this was going to play out, this kid’s book about beer. By the time I read this passage on the fifth page, however, where Uncle Moe explains to little Gracie about hops being used to make beer, I knew everything was going to be just fine:
“No, pumpkin, beer isn’t extracted from grasshoppers. Nor hop toads, either. A hop is some funky vegetable that even vegans won’t eat. Farmers dry the flowers of this plant and call them ‘hops.’ I should mention that only the female hop plants are used in making beer, which may be why men are so attracted to it. It’s a mating instinct.”
A few pages later, when the following passage about Gracie in Sunday school was scanned by my eyes, I realized I was in love:
Gracie hit the Pause button on her daydream machine and looked up just as the teacher asked, “Why, class, do you suppose that ol’ Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, commanded all Israelite boy babies to be drowned in the river?”
Fully awake now, Gracie believed she might have the answer. She raised her hand. “To keep ‘em from growing up and drinking all the Egypt’s beer,” she said brightly.
Yes, I absolutely love this book. What’s incredible is that its words and sentences feel like the same Tom Robbins I fell in love with back in college, including comments from the anonymously omniscient author directly to the reader, yet they are unquestionably different. This really is written as a children’s book, with simple and generally straightforward sentences, and with the reader to whom the anonymously omniscient author directly speaks clearly being a child. But Robbins manages to do this while still keeping his sense of humor, and employing the metaphors, wordplay and offensive snark that makes reading his best works such a pleasure, such as:
In Seattle in October, the day is already so dark by six p.m. that the bats are out shopping for bug bargains and stars are striking wet matches in an attempt to mark a path through the gloom.
“At one point, she informed me that she was half-Jewish and half-Italian. I said, ‘That’s a splendid combination, Doctor, but under those conditions, I have an urgent request: I want your Jewish half to perform the surgery. Okay? All right? Save the Italian part for cooking and singing.’”
I could go on and on quoting little snippets of this book, I loved it that much. But at the end of the day, it boils down to this — while reading this, I felt, quite simply, like a kid reading a wonderful kid’s book. The warmness I felt, the little grin that was on my face the whole time, reminded me of exactly what it was like when I was buried under my blankets after bedtime, book in one hand, flashlight in the other, choosing my own adventure or helping Encyclopedia Brown solve mysteries or following fat little Ned to the Camp Lean-Too cafeteria for a midnight cheese attack.
About seven years ago, I saw Robbins give a little spiel and do a little book reading. I’ll be seeing him again in about a week, and it’s going to be hard to resist the urge to raise my hand and ask Uncle Tommy if he’ll let me climb up on his lap and nurse a beer while he reads this to me.
Seth Freilich is now going to do what needs to be done to ensure a visit by the Beer Fairy.