Book Worm: ‘Beer and Loathing’ on spring break

Remember Encyclopedia Brown? The annoyingly clever boy-detective who protected the good children of Idaville from the nefarious schemes of Wilford Wiggins? 

Well, imagine this: Encyclopedia’s much older now. He’s headed to Panama City, Fla., for spring break in a Jeep Cherokee loaded with eight cases of Natty Light and an undisclosed quantity of marijuana. However drunk, however high he gets, he’s just as annoyingly clever as always. Only, instead of solving mysteries, he’s trying to get laid – and to do so in just 80 pages.

Interested? If so, then move Keith Strausbaugh’s Beer and Loathing in Panama City: A Bloodthirsty Spring Break Exodus to the top of your to-read list. Of course, if a liquored- and doped-up Encyclopedia Brown doesn’t hold any real appeal to you, this may not be the book for you. In fact, even if that image does hold tremendous appeal, this still might not be the right book for you.

“Appreciating a natural setting,” Strausbaugh writes in one of the later chapters, “makes me feel like I should donate my d–k to an obscure charity and join a hand-holding glee club.”

With a remarkably small number of exceptions, the book maintains this tone of sarcastic nihilism and near-solipsistic self-confidence throughout. In trying to summon the rage of a Richard Wright and the stylistic prowess of a Hunter S. Thompson, Strausbaugh winds up sounding more like a congressman from Connecticut, feigning rage at AIG executives between iced coffees – utterly unconvincing but cathartically familiar at the same time.

Beer and Loathing is the book all the smart kids think they could write about their spring break shenanigans, and Strausbaugh is a twisted sort of Everyman, an overly-pretentious narrator you can’t help hating because he sounds like your own most ambitiously cynical blog entries. Granted, there’s some pithiness floating about in this sea of pettiness – “What happens in Panama City, stays in Panasonic SD cards” – but Strausbaugh’s writing mostly amounts to the ultimate elevation of style over substance.

Does he wind up sounding like a groundbreaking Gonzo journalist? Well, yes, he certainly does sound like one from Beer and Loathing’s clearly allusive title to its stream-of-consciousness comma splices. What’s lacking is the sense that this superficial similarity matters, that Beer and Loathing is any more than a freshman composition instructor’s last-chance paean to the literary idol of his drink- and drug-filled undergraduate days. What’s lacking is the sense that we, Strausbaugh’s readers, couldn’t have done just as well ourselves.

So how did I come into possession of a copy of Beer and Loathing in Panama City? The answer is rather illuminating, as it sheds some light on both the book’s quality and the larger systems that produced it.

Long ago, editors like Max Perkins steered great authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe through the writing process, making sure that their products were truly worthy of publication. Over time, as printing got cheaper and good editors got more expensive, this approach began to fall by the wayside. Any book that seemed likely to capture an “audience” could be printed quickly and abandoned even faster if its promise didn’t pan out.

Online self-publishing takes this niche-writing to the extreme, allowing writers to directly target near-microscopic audiences without the large expenses incurred in traditional self-publishing.

Thanks to Web sites like Lulu and BookSurge (which publishes on-demand copies of Beer and Loathing), the best and worst of literature are both more available than ever before.

From sub-genre-specific treatises such as Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle to universally-accessible works like Office Slave: Books I and II to the extremely long-titled How to Get ANY MAN to Do ANYTHING You Want! How to Find the Ones You REALLY Want. How to GET Them. How to Get Them to Buy You Stuff!!, the magical world of online self-publishing means that just about anyone can read or write just about anything at just about any time.

Granted, not every self-publisher is a Tom Paine-in-waiting. For every Common Sense, you’ve got, say, 80,000 Beer and Loathings.

OK, so the Paine comparison may have been a little unfair. At the same time, however, the people who do seem to be reading these books also seem to be liking them: the Office Slave books averaged a 3.5 out of 5 star rating at BookSurge (with eight ratings total), while Beer and Loathing comes in at an alarming 4.5 stars (with seven ratings).

So, exactly what is the point of all this? I’m not sure. Online self-publishing could be (as its proponents claim) the next big thing or just another manifestation of an old tradition known for catering to extremists, unappreciated masters and utterly-forgettable amateurs. Again, I’m not sure – but after reading Beer and Loathing, I’m inclined to go with the latter.

Peter Chomko can be reached at pchomko@temple.edu.

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