Editor’s Note: Looking back over all the pieces I have presented on this site so far, it’s obvious this writer has a soft part in his heart for the traditional short story, the old high art of storytelling. But lest anyone who doesn’t know me well, know my work in its entirety (past, present…) conclude that “traditional” is the be-all/end-all for me, be assured my grasp and love of this form is far and wide. I have read, written, published every conceivable narrative imaginable and continue to do so. That’s the protean beauty of this form.
True, the very first short story I published in the early 60’s was highly traditional as were many of them that followed. I continue to write in that way, but I continue to push the boundaries as well. I was intrigued then and now by what was called experimental writing or the avant-garde. Today there so many names for this, so many approaches to the story that I best leave this another presentation in the future.
But among the modern, contemporary ‘innovatives’ of my time was (is) Robert Coover, whom I suspect these days remains somewhat in the shadows of that not too distant past, even unknown, unfortunately, by many practicing the way of the avant-garde today. (Coover, the father of meta-fiction?)
Somewhere in, on, around my clogged bookshelves in this coop where I write and paint is a copy of Coover’s PRICKSONGS AND DESCANTS, which I recall reviewing 40? some years ago for, I believe, The Chicago Tribune. I became a fan immediately. There was more good Coover stuff to come—even though I too lost him to the shadows through the past years.
But I’m happy to report Coover is alive and well—as evidenced by this brilliant, fast moving, time-tumbling story which recently appeared in The New Yorker.
Coover LIVES!… breathes…takes you through a once-upon-a-time, often with humor, satire, a “magical realism” distinctly his own, a timepiece run amok to amazing perfection. – norbert blei
GOING FOR A BEER
BY ROBERT COOVER
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. Where a brawny dude starts hassling her. He intervenes and she turns up at his hospital bed, bringing him one other Kewpie dolls to keep him company. Which is her way of expressing the bond between them, or so he supposes, as he leaves the hospital on crutches, uncertain what part of town he is in. Or what part of the year. He decides that it’s time to call the affair off—she’s driving him crazy—but then the brawny dude turns up at their wedding and apologizes for the pounding he gave him. He didn’t realize, he says, how serious they were. The guy’s wedding present is a gift certificate for two free drinks at the bar where they me1 and a pair of white satin ribbons for hi6 crutches. During the ceremony, they both carry Kewpie dolls that probably have some barely hidden significance, and indeed do. The child she bears him, his or another’s, reminds him, as if he needed reminding, that time is fast moving on. He has responsibilities now and he decides to check whether he still has the job that he had when he first met her. He does. His absence, if he has been absent, is not remarked on, but he is not congratulated on his marriage, either, no doubt because—it comes back to him now—before he met his wife he was engaged to one of his colleagues and their co-workers had already thrown them an engagement party, so they must resent the money they spent on gifts. It’s embarrassing and the atmosphere is somewhat hostile, but he has a child in kindergarten and another on the way, so what can he do? Well, he still hasn’t cashed in the gift certificate, so, for one thing, what the hell, he can go for a beer, two, in fact, and he can afford a third. There’s a young woman sitting near him who looks like she’s probably good in bed, but she’s not his wife and he has no desire to commit adultery, or so he tells himself, as he sits on the edge other bed with his pants around his ankles. Is he taking them off or putting them on? He’s not sure, but now he pulls them on and limps home, having left his beribboned crutches somewhere. On arrival, he finds all the Kewpie dolls, which were put on a shelf when the babies started coming, now scattered about the apartment, beheaded and with their limbs amputated. One of the babies is crying, so, while he warms up a bottle of milk on the stove, he goes into its room to give it a pacifier and discovers a note from his wife pinned to its pajamas, which says that she has gone off to the hospital to have another baby and she’d better not find him here when she gets back, because if she does she’ll kill him. He believes her, so he’s soon out on the streets again, wondering if he ever gave that bottle to the baby, or if it’s still boiling away on the stove. He passes the old neighborhood bar and is tempted but decides that he has had enough trouble for one lifetime and is about to walk on when he is stopped by that hulk who beat him up and who now gives him a cigar because he’s just become a father and drags him into the bar for a celebratory drink, or, rather, several, he has lost count. The celebrations are already over, however, and the new father, who has married the same woman who threw him out, is crying in his beer about the miseries of married life and congratulating him on being well out of it, a lucky man. But he doesn’t feel lucky, especially when he sees a young woman sitting near them who looks like she’s probably good in bed and decides to suggest that they go to her place, but too> late—she’s already out the door with the guy who beat him up and stole his wife. So he has another beer, wondering where he’s supposed to live now, and realizing—it’s the bartender who so remarks while offering him another on the house—that life is short and brutal and before he knows it he’ll be dead. He’s right. After a few more beers and orgasms, some vaguely remembered, most not, one of his sons, now a race-car driver and the president of the company he used to work for, comes to visit him on his deathbed and, apologizing for arriving so late (I went for a beer, Dad, things happened), says he’s going to miss him but it’s probably for the best. For the best what? he asks, but his son is gone, if he was ever there in the first place. Well. .. you know . . . life, he says to the nurse who has come to pull the sheet over his face and wheel him away.
[from THE NEW YORKER, March 14, 2011]
ABOUT ROBERT COOVER: Robert Coover is an avant-garde novelist, critic and playwright lauded for experimental forms and techniques that mix reality and illusion, frequently creating otherworldly or surreal situations and effects. A leading proponent of hypertext fiction and metafiction, Mr. Coover is known as a true revolutionary in contemporary American literature and language. Mr. Coover’s first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, won the William Faulkner Award in 1966. He is also the recipient of the Brandeis University, American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment of the Arts, Rhode Island Governor’s Arts, Pell, and Clifton Fadiman Awards, as well as Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Lannan Foundation, and DAAD fellowships. His latest honor is the Dugannon Foundation’s REA award for his lifetime contribution to the short story.
His most recent books are The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut, Stepmother, and A Child Again. Other works include the collection of short fiction, Pricksongs and Descants, a collection of plays, A Theological Position, such novels as The Public Burning, Spanking the Maid, Gerald’s Party, Pinocchio in Venice, John’s Wife, Ghost Town and Briar Rose.
As the T.B. Stowell Adjunct Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University, Mr. Coover teaches courses in electronic writing and mixed media, including “CaveWriting,” a spatial hypertext writing workshop in immersive virtual reality, as well as standard workshops. He is one of the founders of the Electronic Literature Organization and he created Brown’s Freedom to Write Program in 1989. The New York Times said, “As his dazzling career continues to demonstrate, Mr. Coover is a one-man Big Bang of exploding creative force.”