May 23, 2009

Chris' Last Meal

AcknowledgmentsChris did an exemplary job hosting Man Book Club on Tuesday. He asked what we would enjoy as a final meal before being locked up. The universal response: more of the same! (Ok, not from Garth The Vegan.) Chris didn't disappoint. His now-legendary filet mignons were grilled to perfection, and the evening's record turnout reflected their popularity. With 17 guys vying for space at the table, we were seated just in time to toast our kind host. Even our latecomers (Larry caught an early flight to make this dinner!) were graciously attended to by a true Bohemian.

In keeping with the last few meetings, we were presented with a heavily-themed selection of wine and beer, including several bottles of red from the BigHouse Wine Co. (Paul and Dan), an amber ale from Humboldt Brewing with the none-too-subtle Hemp label (Glenn), Rogue Brewery’s Dead Guy Ale and Redhook’s Slim Chance (Tom A.), and—winner of the evening’s grand prize for most fanciful label—Lagunitas’ Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale (Garth). Lest we sacrifice quality for cleverness, perhaps we need to “shut down” our label competition (or at least consult Beer Advocate before buying more exotica).

Before turning to our book, we forced our newest member, Judd, to offer up his bona fides. Apart from certain parallels to the life of John McCain (which parallels, he hastened to add, may be biographical but are most certainly not political), we were intrigued to learn that Judd’s family has an interest in a California champagnerie. Judd, we’ll meet in your cellar anytime.

Finally, we toasted George’s return from Pebble Beach, where we hear he honeymooned extravagantly with his golfing wife. Happy nuptials, George!

The BookHow shall I put this without offending our host? How about: The 25th Hour was a pleasant escape into genre fiction? None of us argued that Benioff’s story wasn’t compelling. The hero, Monty Brogan, spends his last night of freedom with two prep school pals, and together they ruminate on (and react to) his obligation to report to federal prison the next morning to start a 7-year sentence for drug dealing.

As a group, we were frustrated that Benioff’s novel delivered so little on its promise (hence, the 5.8 rating). With richer characters and a fleshier story, we might have been satisfied. But no one felt that Benioff’s tight narrative could match the impact of, say, Cormac McCarthy, whose simple lines resonate forever. So instead we were left wondering how much of Monty’s last night of freedom was truly significant to the shallow arc of this spare, first novel. He cleans up some loose ends (his betrayer, Kostya; his dog, Doyle), he says his farewells (to his father, his lover, and his friends), and in the book’s climactic scene he prepares himself physically to face (!) a 7-year stretch.

Despite these carefully plotted moments, Monty’s fantasy en route to Otisville (which divided us for other reasons) is an apt metaphor for his regret and ours, too. While he dreams of the life he could have had, the reader dreams about what this novel might have been. Benioff had within his reach the perfect parable for our time. He leaves us instead with the haunting premise of the book’s final line ("This life came so close to never happening") and a yearning for so much more.
Next Up
Paul noted (complained, actually) that our last three novels have featured badly flawed protagonists with way too much male angst. Perhaps in reaction to this trend, Garth proposed four of the most inflammatory titles to date. Despite his withdrawing Isabel Allende’s “memoir of the senses” (but only after being censured for his flagrant breach of the MBC cardinal rule), Garth’s fem-biased erotica selections already had us flummoxed. Nevertheless, a clear majority rejected Nin and Trevanian and voted for Henry Miller's magnum opus, Tropic of Cancer. Maybe this once-controversial title will interest us as much as it did the 9 justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled that the book was a work of literary merit (and not obscenity).

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