Cover of B is for Beer

Tom Robbin's glorious
ode on a bucket of beer

''B is for Beer''
By Tom Robbins
(Ecco, 126 pages, $17.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
May 2009

The first thing to know about Tom Robbins' latest novel, "B Is for Beer," is that it is very charming.

Except, that is, to those people who keep their shoelaces too tight.

The downside of too-tight shoelaces is one of the central lessons in this delightful little expedition into magical reality, in which a bright little girl, Gracie Perkel, is taken on an elucidating journey by the Beer Fairy.

But first, Gracie has a very bad birthday -- her sixth. The party was cancelled because of kindergarten-wide stomach-flu outbreak; Daddy was out of town with his secretary; Mommy couldn't find a pink cell phone anywhere for Gracie's gift; and worst of all, Uncle Moe has skipped the country completely, having fallen in love with his podiatrist.

Moe and the doctor go to Costa Rica, which Moe likes because it has no army, air force or navy.

The podiatrist had enjoyed a very lucrative career in the United States because so many Americans lace their shoes so tightly.

Moe is the fellow who recently gave Gracie two entire sips of beer, which she had not liked.

But, after having just gotten all the bad news about her birthday, and while Mommy is the backyard, Gracie hammers down two entire cans of beer.

This leads to a puddle of chocolate-cake and beer-infused vomit on her bedroom rug, and, after a short nap, a visit by the Beer Fairy.

The Beer Fairy is a lot like Moe, except Moe is a human being with a really unfortunate mustache, and the Beer Fairy is about the size of a dragonfly and carries a leather wand about the size of a tadpole's tail. The Beer Fairy is also female.

But, like Moe, who graduated from about a dozen colleges, the Beer Fairy is smart, knows a lot about beer and thinks Gracie deserves to know more about this revered beverage, which was invented by ancient Egyptians.

The beer tour includes visits to fields where barley is grown and to a brewery. The Beer Fairy explains the history and the chemistry of beer, and then delves into a deeper issue: the "Mystery."

The Beer Fairy waxes poetic about the Mystery, and explains "People are attracted to the Mystery ... No, not simply attracted, they are unconsciously pulled toward it, they hunger for it, they yearn to connect with it, to get next to it, even to merge with it."

But it gets tougher to interface with the Mystery as we age.

Beer can help care-worn adults loosen up enough to once again pursue the Mystery. Like loosening up too-tight shoelaces.

"Beer is merely a vehicle," the Beer Fairy explains. "On rare occasions, and for very brief moments, that vehicle may carry a person beyond the state of being glad and dizzy (I'm all for glad and dizzy, you know, glad and dizzy is my neighborhood); may shoot them through and opening between the glad and the dizzy ... and carry one close enough to the gates of the Mystery so that one's granted a quick but entirely rapturous peek inside."

Gracie and the Beer Fairy have some adventures, including a fight with two men who have abused the beauty of beer and are attempting to abuse a woman. Gracie, although only 6, has played soccer and uses her kicking skills to advantage, thereby helping to save the woman and send the men rolling down a hill, groaning.

This is a delightful book, and the obvious guess is that Robbins himself uses beer to help himself investigate the Mystery, as do lots of other creative people. For my part, when I am working on my novel at home, I find a sip or two of Canadian whiskey helps me "shoot through an opening between the glad and the dizzy" to that creative place where blossom my best ideas.

The full title is "B is for Beer: A Children's Book for Grown-ups / A Grown-up Book for Children," but somehow I doubt it will find its way into many elementary school libraries, despite its intelligent and clever ways of demonstrating the dangers as well as the benefits of drinking beer.

Lots of parents, wearing those tight-laced shoes, won't want their kids reading this book.

For my part, I think those people could, you know, loosen up.

Gracie's journey really begins when she asks "Mommy, what's that stuff Daddy drinks ... that's yellow and looks like pee-pee."

For parents who drink, "B is for Beer" is not the worst way I have ever seen for explaining alcohol to children.

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