All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan

Book Review: Beer and Loathing

This spring break I read two things: Sartre’s What is Writing? and a novel entitled (no joke) Beer and Loathing in Panama City: A Bloodthirsty Spring Break Exodus, by Keith Strausbaugh. Sartre says of the poet, “one might think that he is composing a sentence, but this is only what it appears to be. He is creating an object.” In other words, literature is the creation of an object outside of the self. Then again, from another point of view literature is an encounter with another self.

Strausbaugh’s book fails on both counts. Though his unpleasant self is spattered across the pages of Beer and Loathing, he doesn’t give the reader any reason to want to keep the encounter going. And he certainly doesn’t go far toward creating a credible artistic object. His parody of Hunter S. Thompson soon degrades into a parody of himself, leaving the reader with a plotless mess of flat characters.

Beer and Loathing in Panama City is not a good book. What fascinates me is the fact that Keith Strausbaugh wrote it. He created a fictional proxy for himself, sent this self-object on a wild ride through the soul-destroying emptiness of spring break Panama City, then wrapped it up in a cheap paperback and self-published it. What impulse drives a human being to do this?

According to Sartre, “the function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world.” Strausbaugh certainly burns with this desire for “disclosure,” in Sartre’s words. His abrasive style builds to an angry diatribe against traditional morality, but the form can’t bear the weight of the content.

Bad art fails to turn the creator’s need for expression into something that can affect the beholder. Tomorrow I will forget Beer and Loathing in Panama City and so should you. But you won’t forget Sartre once you’ve read him, even if you want to.

Strausbaugh’s failure and Sartre’s success both prove that this need for disclosure is a force to be reckoned with. Something inside of us yearns to be expressed, but once it’s out it becomes an independent thing-in-itself. Or, from another angle, we strive to create self-transcendent beauty but then find that our creations reveal us in unexpected ways. No matter how many different ways we talk about it the final point is that we can’t stop talking. Literature is an essential act.

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