“Going for a Beer” by Robert Coover is a short, surreal journey of moments that bleed into one another and skip years. It reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly.” However, whereas, Foer’s short story is a mixture of moments as well, it trends toward cleverness and romance. The narrator comments on all these little idiosyncrasies between his girlfriend/wife and he. He’s contradictory. He’s saying what he means. He’s a yuppy and life is passing so fast.
The narrator in “Going for a Beer” is not a yuppy. Life is going too fast for him as well, but that is because he’s an alcoholic who can’t say no. He doesn’t say no to one more drink, and he doesn’t say no to another affair. Life is a haze and he’s anticipating events happening, only to realize they’ve happened and he’s approaching another familiar situation he doesn’t expect. While both stories make for entertaining reads, Foer’s reads like a love letter for a cute, intelligent couple renewing their vows, and Coover’s story reads like an epitaph scrawled across a beery napkin.
How does Coover achieve this surreal sense of motion? Let’s look at the beginning of the story for answers.
“He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third. There is a young woman sitting not far from him who is not exactly good-looking but good-looking enough, and probably good in bed, as indeed she is. Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment. Which was full of Kewpie dolls, the sort won at carnivals, and they made a date, as he recalls, to go to one. Where she wins another—she has a knack for it. Whereupon they’re in her apartment again, taking their clothes off, she excitedly cuddling her new doll in a bed heaped with them. He can’t remember when he last slept, and he’s no longer sure, as he staggers through the night streets, still foggy, where his own apartment is, his orgasm, if he had one, already fading from memory. Maybe he should take her back to the carnival, he thinks, where she wins another Kewpie doll (this is at least their second date, maybe their fourth), and this time they go for a romantic nightcap at the bar where they first met.”
First, he “finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar.” That word “finds” creates a situation where the narrator is not quite sure how he got to the bar. Find implies lack of intent or knowledge. He didn’t go to the bar, or plan to go. He found himself at the bar, literally and figuratively.
Second, his thoughts are always a step behind his actions. This creates a strange world where the reader knows almost as much as the narrator, or is equally surprised. “Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third.” There is a disconnect, which follows the narrator throughout the story, and his life.
The third way surreal motion is achieved is by the narrator asking questions. “Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment.” Events blur, moments recede, and the narrator plunges toward another drink, slightly aware of the mess he’s causing, but unable to stop.
The story ends on a sombre note with the narrator seemingly unrepentant. If you’re not cognizant of your sins, how can you know to ask forgiveness? What also makes this story work well is it’s length. It’s one paragraph, and hardly more than 1,000 words. The reader follows the narrator, is with him, and then before the story can get too weighed down by the voice or affect, the story ends. It works. It’s original, and as life fades away for the narrator, the story stays with the reader well after the page is turned.