"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.