Beer & Book Club | Man Alive!
The second installment of the PorchDrinking’s Beer and Book Club will be a tad different from the first. Although, I’ve been in two book groups, and I’ve even started one, they don’t work for me. Turns out, I prefer a solitary read and perhaps an impromptu conversation that results from the surprise of realizing someone else also enjoys the same authors and books as me. My favorite reading spot is in an upstairs room at home with my two dogs, a comfortable chair and a beer fridge. Maybe I’ve stumbled on to the perfect book club.
This particular platform offers a unique challenge. To pair a beer and a book is more difficult than you might think. There are, of course, the obvious choices—Moby Dick and Whale’s Tale Pale Ale or a sampling of Edgar Allen Poe with anything from The Raven Brewery.
My brain kept creeping back to Mary Kay Zuravleff’s Man Alive!, a novel I devoured before participating in a fiction workshop with the author in Key West. Man Alive! became my “You need to read this” book, the one I recommended to anyone who might listen.
Start with the basic premise:
Owen Lerner is feeding quarters to a parking meter.
Lightning strikes one of the quarters.
Owen Lerner survives and becomes obsessed with grilling.
Although it sounds like an SNL skit or a Coen Brothers film, it is a complex novel about a family struggling to keep it together in the wake of trauma-induced change. This book is an achievement. It is funny and tense and an indictment of what we might consider to be “normal.”
And that thing about the grilling is awesome, too.
From a craft perspective, the writing sings. Ever thought about trying to describe getting struck by lighting? Here’s a smidgen of how Zuravleff’s describes it:
His arms and legs flail spasmodically, not in a swimming groove. More like a believer shot full of god, some maniac at a revival compelled to twitch and moan in languages not yet discovered before plunging into the baptismal font. He is white-hot as well as deeply quenched by the singed, syrupy fluid of his surround.
Can I get an A-men?
Like most traumatic events, the lightning strike creates two contrasting realities that hinge upon a split-second event, and each side of a before and after comes with friction. A miracle can cause tension.
Toni, his wife, is thrust into the role of caregiver. She is also human: “She’s as contrary as a magnet: some days she clings to him, full of love and gratitude; others, she’s repulsed by him.”
Meanwhile, each of the three children struggles with slightly tangential battles. Obviously, the semi-electrocution of their father has destabilized their worlds, but they must contend with the murk of adolescence, looming adulthood, drug-use, sexual exploration and confusion. In other words—life.
The novel stretches from late summer of 2008 to Thanksgiving of the same year. It’s an election year, it’s Washington D.C., during those busy months when life cranks up. In this novel, the cranking does not slow down. These are very real characters with very real issues, and the novel’s success lies in the writer’s ability to shift between tension and comedy, love and fear, all with the master touch of playful, poignant and sharp language.
And, yes, faithful followers of the PorchDrinking community, Ms. Zuravleff appreciates good beer. When I got in touch with her regarding this piece, she said, “I love to hear about craft beer efforts, the chemistry and the care.” Although she admits a solid craft gin or hard cider, beer enthusiasts populate her world. Her brother grows his own hops, her nephew works with Shorts Brewing Company, and at one point, her husband, a craft beer enthusiast, worked as a beer lobbyist.
In honor of the book’s opening scene which takes place outside of the Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, I hereby declare the official beer pairing for Mary Kay Zuravleff’s Man Alive! to be Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, a lightning strike of sorts in my own world. This was one of the first craft beers I remember tasting and loving — and then recoiling at the price for a six pack. That took some getting used to. But with the same effect that Kerouac makes you want to take a road trip, Zuravleff makes you want to slow-cook a hog over a fire pit. And, thus, my beer selection is a pairing in that regard as well. The hop and malt characters of the 60 Minute IPA blend for a perfect sidekick to a low and slow cooked rack of ribs, flavored with cherry woodsmoke and a fine dry rub.
And, so, I leave you with this Zuravleff note of wisdom. When addressing the question of research it took to write a novel in which barbecue plays a large role, Zuravleff pointed to her upbringing, an Oklahoma childhood and formal education in Texas: “BBQ and grilled food are my bread and butter. What I used in my book was the primitive — throw food on fire — played against the perfected or even precious, precise cut of meat, rubs! We’re always making those choices, eat to live and live to eat. Same for beer, or writing for that matter.”
See what I mean? Is there a better book out there for a beer pairing?