"Going for a Beer"
by Robert Coover
Originally published in the March 15, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

This week’s short story takes up a single three-column page in the magazine, easy enough to read while waiting in line somewhere. I have to say, I’m glad it was short; I don’t think the style or concept could have been taken much further. Indeed, I am getting a bit tired of these shorties that are primarily about style with just an inkling of substance.

Here’s how the piece begins:

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.

I found the beginning interesting. The man while drinking, perhaps on this trip to the bar, perhaps on another — they all blend together — meets a woman, sleeps with her, it appears.

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.

The whole piece — all three columns — is this type of stream of time rushing by faster than than the narrator can register any discreet moment. In fact, time is slipping by faster than it can be lived, and we go through the narrator’s entire life, which seemingly passes as he’s going out for a beer.

The writing is not the problem. The quick pace is nicely maintained and, despite the strange passage of time, the elements of the story are decently controlled and clear. But we’ve read this story before. My favorite iteration is Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” I know, there are some differences in the style, but boiled down to the idea of time zipping past while we think we’re doing something else, the stories tread the water. But Cheever’s story is palpable and exhausting and devastating; this one comes off as a gimmicky exercise in style we’re all too familiar with.

I don’t mind these stories, but I’m glad they’re generally short, as was the last one we had: Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly,” which was despised by many last year, but which I liked quite a bit and certainly more than this piece.

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By |2016-06-27T18:49:31-04:00March 9th, 2011|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Robert Coover|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Tim March 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I enjoyed this story, but agree it couldn’t be sustained much longer without becoming burdened by style. Is it gimmicky? I’m not sure. The story isn’t about life passing the narrator by too quickly, but that the narrator is an alcoholic who is out of control. Life is a blur, because he’s never in a clear state of mind.

    I’ll have to check out “The Swimmer.” Feel like I’ve read it, but can’t recall.

    Nice post, Trevor.

    Also, if you’re interested, my post is here: http://www.timlepczyk.com/2011/03/going-for-beer-robert-coover-surreal.html.

  2. Trevor March 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Is it gimmicky? I’m not sure. The story isn’t about life passing the narrator by too quickly, but that the narrator is an alcoholic who is out of control. Life is a blur, because he’s never in a clear state of mind.

    I agree that the angle is a bit different — here life is a blur due, perhaps, to alcohol; there life is a blur due to work; and over there life is just a blur period — but the effect (and much of the style used to get to that effect), for me, came out the same.

    I need to read “The Swimmer” again, too. It’s been a few years since the last time, though they’ve flown past.

    Also, thanks for the link — always interested!

  3. Phillip March 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I agree, Trevor, that “The Swimmer” is “palpable and exhausting and devastating.” Reading the story was an experience, and a “gimmicky exercise in style” can’t provide an experience.
    The movie version, with Burt Lancaster, is quite good. The director (Frank Perry) and his wife Eleanor (who did the adaptation for the screen) capture the story’s magic realism aspect, which couldn’t have been easy. I wonder if Cheever saw the film, and what he thought of it. I can’t think, offhand, of any other Cheever work that was made into a movie.

  4. Thomas G March 10, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Trevor, great analysis! I very much agree that this story is reminiscent of Swimmer. I really enjoyed the set up, but like someone said above, it most certainly could not have been sustained for much long, and so it comes off feeling like a summary of a life or an idea–not the greatest thing when writing a story.

  5. Betsy March 10, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Coover is nearing 80. This feels like a retort to a glowing eulogy or obituary he’s just read. As he says in his interview with the New Yorker fiction editor (Deborah Treisman), “It’s not the joke, but how you tell it.” Somehow he’s admitting that the story’s a crack at something (that somebody else already did?) Kind of a cocktail party trick. But this is definitely a topic: at a certain point you begin to wonder how we’ll be remembered. Erikson talks about reaching the stage of generativity …. a stage this character clearly missed. So in fact Coover makes his point with me – reminded me of Erikson, in the end.

  6. Shelley March 10, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Maximum style, minimum substance: most (not all) of contemporary lit.

  7. Betsy March 10, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I re-read Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, Trevor. It is wonderful. There is both beauty and loss, and therefore, real sadness. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Aaron March 11, 2011 at 4:35 am

    Betsy, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a crack at something else — Coover’s been experimenting with stories for a long time. This is just what he does; plays with ways to tell the same old stories. That’s why I was delighted with the story of his that Harper’s ran last year; seemed like a change of pace. This, as Trevor correctly identified, is a bit more of the same, and we both completely agree that Foer did this much better last year. (I said as much here: http://tinyurl.com/6epebjj.) Life’s a blur, even more with alcohol, but don’t we read fiction for the way it momentarily slows the spinning world down and focuses our attention?

  9. Betsy March 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Aaron, you said – “Life’s a blur, even more with alcohol, but don’t we read fiction for the way it momentarily slows us down?” Yes, your observation is such an important juxtaposition of thoughts: life’s natural blur – and the necessity for reflection. Nothing seemed to slow this man in Coover’s story down. Perhaps Coover’s point precisely.

    In contrast, Cheever’s swimmer notices a great deal, wants to participate in the beauty of the world, and yet, in sum, has noticed very little. There is a brutality to Coover’s story that may be a purposeful comment on Cheever’s lyricism. (Cheever’s lyricism, however, is hard for me to resist. And perhaps that is also Coover’s point.)

    I haven’t read the Foer – want to take a look at that.

  10. Ken April 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Betsy pretty much nails it in my opinion. I’d add (or amplify) that the story’s length is deliberate (many have written above in a way that seems to imply that it’s some blessed and thankful accident that it’s so short rather than a choice of Coover’s) and its single paragraph is meant to be read straight through in 4 minutes (my reading time) in one gulp and thus reinforce the point about life’s brevity. Therefore, one isn’t supposed to consider the story for that long or spend that much time with it, i.e. it’s deliberately minor and shouldn’t be treated the same way as (for example) an Alice Munro story. Being “thankful” it’s short seems to miss the point. It’s like being “thankful” Citizen Kane is in black and white. By the way, the film which this is very reminiscent of is Charlie Kauffman’s Syncedoche, New York which also radically speed up time.

  11. Trevor April 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    I am thankful Citizen Kane is in black and white, Ken :)

  12. Ken April 29, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Well, I’m thankful Ted Turner couldn’t colorize it when he tried to because of the strictness of Orson Welles’ original contract with RKO. I guess my point was that it goes without saying that the story is a short one because that’s all Coover wanted to do. I got the sense some readers didn’t quite get that point-Coover’s story is read in a gulp and about how time flies, not deep but he also doesn’t take up hours of the readers time. To imagine that he would have written a longer story is like imaging that The Sun Also Rises is a poem.

  13. Trevor April 29, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    I’m not sure those of us who expressed gratitude the story was brief missed the point, Ken. Of course its brevity is part of its form and part of its substance. It’s just that the point and the technique getting there has been done numerous times, so I at least derived some comfort because I didn’t spend more time than I did getting to the end of this iteration.

  14. Ken May 1, 2011 at 1:13 am

    well-put, I’ll partially concede the point.

  15. […] back in March when we read his last story in The New Yorker, “Going for a Beer” (post here) I put him out of my head; I just didn’t like that piece much.  But “Matinée,” […]

  16. Mark Hebwood November 22, 2016 at 8:42 am

    Just read it over lunch. Great story – the narrative has a brilliant feel to it, it develops in jumps and starts, then briefly pauses, before jumping again. It feels right that this story is very short – this in itself heightens the impression of being whisked across time, of being hastened towards the end. But “hastened” is the wrong word, isn’t it? It’s more like all the meaningless episodes in the protagonist’s life are simply skipped, and the narrator briefly dwells on those where something is actually happening. The result is a life compressed into the 10 minutes of actual time it took me to read this, and then it’s curtains and I go back to my lunch.

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