Book 59: The Barkeep


"All the lies ever told in a bar could be distilled into three: I'm not a drunk; I'm not trying to pick your pocket; I'm not looking for meaningless impersonal sex."

Dates read: June 5-6, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Anyone who knows me knows my life hasn't been, like, sunshine and rainbows perfect (though I do try to maintain a sunny and optimistic vibe). I've had some parts of my life that were not awesome, but I've never had what I'd consider to be actual real trauma: my parents are still alive and pretty healthy, my sister the same. I myself have only had the most minor of health problems. Same with my close friends. I'm lucky, and I'm grateful.

It's hard to know how I'd respond to real trauma, like what Justin Chase, the protagonist of William Lashner's The Barkeep, went through. He was a bright and ambitious law student bringing home his laundry to do when he pretty much literally stumbles over his mother's dead body. His revelation to investigators of his father's affair helps put his dad behind bars for the murder, after which Justin promptly has a nervous breakdown. He is briefly institutionalized, and in that time discovers The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He adopts a Zen lifestyle, keeping few possessions and maintaining no interpersonal relationships, and works as a bartender despite having graduated from a prestigious law school. But one day, a old alcoholic called Birdie walks into his bar and claims to have been the one to have committed the murder of Justin's mother...but not on Justin's father's behalf.

Thus begins, despite Justin's attempts to maintain a Zen cool, his investigation into what really happened to his mother. The plot moves quickly and it's a good thing, because some of the elements don't really stand up to any degree of real scrutiny: why is pretty much everyone but Justin an alcoholic? What exactly is his brother's role in the whole situation? Why is the prosecutor's point of view included at all? And the romantic subplot, in which Justin and his father's former mistress grow closer, is just too squicky to sit right.

It's a pity that the mistress, Annie, is stuck in such a gross plotline, because she's by far the most interesting character in the book. An accountant by day and (of course) alcoholic by night, she's fallen into a pattern of relationships with married men which has already lead to some awkward confrontations but she can't seem to break out of it even though she mostly wants to. I wish she'd been the main character rather than Justin, because just thinking about a dude who's gone all Zen bro at 29 is...yuck. I can picture that guy, and he pretty much sucks. It's definitely presented as his response to cope with incredible trauma, so I tried to not let it bother me as a reader too much, but still, yuck.

I can get a little stuck in my reading comfort zone (lyrically written character-driven dramas), so it was nice to get into a fast-moving mystery-thriller a little bit and switch it up. If you do like this kind of story already, though, I don't think this is going to do much for you because it's not an especially well-constructed example of the genre. It's decent and mildly entertaining if you're looking for something you won't have to or want to think too hard about.

Tell me, blog friends...I'm not the only one who enjoys a beer or three but isn't a lush, right?

One year ago, I was reading: Approval Junkie

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