‘Going for a Beer’ by Robert Coover

What I love about this one is its speed. Skipping with bravura comic energy from one half-apprehended event to the next, ‘Going for a Beer’ tells the story of a life in a little over 1,000 words, and in the time it might take a drunken man to tumble down a flight of stairs. The unnamed central character keeps deciding to take control of things and then being swept along in the opposite direction, usually into a bar. There are many beers and not too much logic: 

…he has no desire to commit adultery, or so he tells himself, as he sits on the edge of her bed with his pants around his ankles. Is he taking them off or putting them on? He’s not sure…

By the end, “After a few more beers and orgasms”, he is lying in a hospital bed and his adult son arrives to say goodbye. “It’s probably for the best. For the best what? he asks.” The form itself, with its skips, hiccups and lacunae, represents the experience of an unexamined life. 

First published in The New Yorker, 14 March 2011. Collected in Going for a Beer, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. You can read it here or listen to Joshua Ferris read and discuss it on a New Yorker podcast here

‘Going for a Beer’ by Robert Coover

It’s over before you know it. That might be a criticism of the short story form. It might imply something else, though. Coover’s story pits form against content, rattling through a character’s life as though against his will, with nothing but Kewpie dolls and crutches to cling to. If the short story form is about compression (and maybe it is, sometimes), Coover’s is like a car crusher, squeezing its poor protagonist, who only wanted a beer, into a helpless cube.

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 2011, and available online here. Collected in Going for a Beer: Selected Shorter Fictions, Norton, 2018

‘The Babysitter’ by Robert Coover

In these days of digital radio perhaps you are nostalgic for the times when, caught between frequencies, you could simultaneously hear opera and a cricket commentary. If you hanker after simultaneous multiplicity you could do worse than read ‘The Babysitter’, which is probably the most anthologised story I have chosen. One evening a teenage girl looks after the children of Harry and Dolly Tucker, a couple who are heading out to a party. But there are multiple lines, alternatives and versions. What’s a happening? What’s an imagining? Which of the various narratives can co-exist? Exhausting, because no consideration of Coover’s story can be exhaustive.

From Pricksongs and Descants, 1969, and now available as a Penguin Modern Classic, 2011. The story is also available from Penguin as a digital single and in a Modern Classics mini)