a review by

JR Foley

     Going for a Beer (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2018, 416 pages) showcases a selection of Robert Coover's short fiction, and its evolution, from 1962 through 2016. Except for the last three, all the stories have appeared in the ground-breaking Pricksongs & Descants (1969), In Bed One Night, and Other Brief Encounters (1983), A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This (1987), and A Child Again (2005). (Coover's many novellas await another collection.)

     Among the fictions are not only classics like "The Gingerbread House" and "The Babysitter," but much later developments (e.g. "The Goldilocks Variations") of the broken montage narrative technique pioneered by those and other early tales.

     One can certainly read this book from front to back, following the development of Coover's prose style, narrative techniques, and variety of subjects. In whatever order one reads the stories, you are likely either to laugh out loud or feel your flesh creep.

     Although "The Elevator" and the farcical "Hat Act" are present as early experiments in broken montage, the technique is first fully exploited in "The Gingerbread House," "The Magic Poker," and, most famously, "The Babysitter."

     In "The Gingerbread House" a boy and a girl (Hansel and Gretel?) and an old man (their father?) approach, enter, re-approach, re-enter, don't enter a gingerbread cottage in the woods fabulously landscaped and decorated with candies; or get side-tracked, all the while enticed by a witch who plucks hearts out of doves, and might also be a blue-eyed, golden-haired good fairy.

     In "The Magic Poker" two sisters, a naked shaggy caretaker's son, and the narrator engage in a dance of intrigue around a cabin on an island where everything that could happen does, doesn't, roles change, and a wrought-iron poker in the grass acts, or doesn't act, to effect it all.

     That everything that could happen really happens, even contradictorily, is what wife, husband, pretty teenage babysitter, girl toddler and slightly older brother experience in "The Babysitter," especially when babysitter's awkward boyfriend and raunchy best friend collide with horny husband coming home to "get his glasses" and "aspirin" and join the babysitter, with/without her consent, in the bathtub.

     I've mentioned that Coover loves to mix terror with boffo farce. Prime examples of the boffo are "The Hat Act," "In Bed One Night," "The Tinkerer," "Cartoon," "Top Hat," "The New Thing," "Going for a Beer," and "Invasion of the Martians," many of them fast acts.

     But the mix of terror and farce can be found in almost every story. It is the deep chord in Coover's exploration, subversion, and reinvention of fairy tales, notably Snow White ("The Dead Queen"), the Pied Piper ("The Return of the Dark Children"), Little Red Riding Hood ("Grandmother's Nose"), and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (the aforementioned "Goldilocks Variations").

     In addition to fairy tales Coover likes to subvert and reinvent film, not just particular movies (which see below) but movie-making ("Inside the Frame," "Lap Dissolves"), as well as the culture of movie-going ("The Phantom of the Movie Palace"). He can take "The Invisible Man" on divigations of post-movie career crises.

     As for particular films, if you like the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman Casablanca, you might fall in love with "You Must Remember This." A riff on the old MAD Magazine "Scenes We'd Like to See," it opens up the unprojected scene between the Rick-Ilse kiss after she lowers her pistol and the (apparently) post-coital dialogue of back-story expo that (in the movie) ensues. Coover elaborates the missing moment of reunited passion, in graphic and hilarious detail, the result of which is that the so familiar denouement swerves into the unexpected and bewildering.

     For this reader three stories stand out across the decades: "Beginnings" (1972), "Aesop's Forest" (1986), and "Stick Man" (2005).

     "Beginnings" begins:

In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself. His blood, unable to resist a final joke, splattered the cabin wall in a pattern that read: It is important to begin when everything is already over.
     This is about considerably more than writer's block, and "his" aloneness is invaded by a "indispensable" woman, "like all women no doubt, ... always the same woman and never the same woman twice."

     The "Stick Man" inhabits a two-dimensional world with a Stick Woman, but every now and then visits the human world, where he's always out of place. On the occasion of the visit in this story a committee of human beings calls on him to represent for them, officially, the "human condition." All sorts of complications follow, in the course of which Stick Man's only true friend and would-be savior is an airborne, gross, and violent Cartoon Man with a " brightly colored body suit and sketchy features." Stick Man, happily and unhappily, undergoes the full range of human experience, all on stage and on TV. It all comes to an end which, in Coover style, is bad ... but also not bad.

     "Death is everywhere in Aesop's dark forest." Not only is the old lion dying, but the wily, lying fox continues to feed him because when the old lion is no more, the new king, who- or whatever that might be, will likely have the fox for breakfast. The humpback fabler himself watches them and all the mortal creatures of the forest he has invented, as his own death advances in the arms of a lynch mob to cast him off a cliff for the impiety of fabulating morals by which they choose not to be entertained.

     ("Aesop's Forest," by appropriation or reference, manages to incorporate every fable the old Egyptian, or Babylonian, ever told.)

     Bright, funny or dark, chilly, these 30 representatives of Robert Coover's vast and intricate story world are, at heart and at bottom, tales to entertain and redirect the reader's gaze as sunset glows toward night.

o o o o o

In addition to Going for a Beer Robert Coover's fiction includes Huck Out West, The Brunist Day of Wrath, The Origin of the Brunists, Noir, The Public Burning, John's Wife, Pinocchio in Venice, and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors' Cut. FlashPøint #15 focuses on Coover's entire work.