Friday, April 9, 2010

"Beyond the numbing grip of circumstance."

 The Pint Man 
by Steve Rushin, 
Doubleday, 259 pages, 

The Pint Man is the story of a few crucial days in the life of Rodney Poole, a New York guy in his mid-thirties who is about to lose the companionship of his best friend (moving away to get married), is unemployed but about to be offered a job he's not sure he wants and is confused about his feelings for Mairead (rhymes with "parade"), the lovely woman he's just met.

Rodney's only enduring relationship is with Boyle's, a classic Irish bar where he spends most of his time. Late in the book he makes note of a concept that sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book The Great Good Place, described as "the third place," informal public gathering places such as bars which are neither home nor job, and muses that, for him, Boyle's is the first place.

Aside from the bar, and perhaps Mairead, the one thing that Rodney loves is words, as, obviously, is also true of author Steve Rushin, and the book is sprinkled with wordplay and unforgettable descriptive passages. It begins with the first two paragraphs of the book in which we are introduced to the bar which, some say, is the love triangle which completes the Rodney/Mairead relationship:
To say that Rodney went there religiously is not just a figure of speech, for Boyle's resembled a church even at noon, when no one was yet kneeling in the Gents, asking God for His mercy.

At that hour, a shaft of sunlight shone through stained glass. Which is to say, windows whose glass was comprehensively stained-by a double-glazing of nicotine and automotive exhaust, and the second hand smoke of a half-century of bullshit.
Has there ever been more comprehensive short description of an old-time watering hole? And don't you want to go have a pint there immediately upon reading?

Not much farther on, Rodney contemplates the bottles on the shelves behind bartender Armen, who will play a vital part in the story's unfolding and resolution, with a distinctive, off-kilter assessment:
A bottle of Cockburn's was shelved next to a bottle of Dry Sack. Given their proximity, Rodney thought of them not as port and sherry but as twinned male medial afflictions, the former leading inevitably to the latter.
Later on, Rushin/Rodney use Boyle's and an old movie theater, where Rodney has gone one afternoon, as a metaphor for New York itself:
Rodney was not unhappy being single, especially not here, in the shared solitude of a movie theater, sucking on sixty-four ounces of soda. That's what Boyle's provided. That's what all of New York provided: not companionship so much as shared solitude.
These sorts of observations and smaller, passing ones, such as Rodney's sudden recognition that a green can of Kraft's Parmesan cheese and a green can of Comet cleanser are almost identical, right down to the three holes in the top, make The Pint Man a hilarious and almost obligatory reading, at least for the likes of me whose own tastes also run to bars, lovely unattainable women, too much rumination and, most certainly, words in all their beauty and variations. Friends of mine--Ross, John and the sadly departed Charlie--used to engage the same sort of banter as do Rodney and Mairead throughout the story, rapid back-and-forth patter playing off whatever the other has said. Like them, our brains were generally fueled by alcohol at the time. That was another time, another life, but I relived the memories throughout my reading of The Pint Man.

The title of the novel itself comes from a beautifully written passage in an old book by John D. Sheridan, called Irish Licensing World:
The man behind the bar knows the pintman when he sees one. It is not matter of dress, or age, or social status; it is sort of a spiritual look. The pintman takes up the tumbler with ritualistic care. Nothing can touch him then. The clock ticks for you and me, but the pintman is on an island in time. He is no long old or young, rich or poor, married or single. He is beyond the numbing grip of circumstance-a devotee at a solemn right, a poet with an unfrenzied eye, a man with a pint. There is a restful, mesmeric quality about the whole business.
I'd give a whole lot to have written that.

The actual story told in The Pint Man is somewhat slight and I see no need to reveal any of it here; the telling is what matters. I highly recommend this book to my readers who appreciate the ever-changing pleasures of good drink shared with good companions, the imaginative delights of a tale which echoes with thoughts oft unspoken or the magic of words themselves. I especially recommend it to those blessed few who revel in all three.

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