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He got the loathing right

BY BRIAN DAU | APRIL 14, 2009 7:30 AM

Beer and Loathing in Panama City is dedicated to Doug Stanhope. Yes, that Doug Stanhope, of “The Man Show” and “Girls Gone Wild” fame.

Dedicating a book to someone of Stanhope’s ilk sets the bar pretty low comedically. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little crass humor, and at a brief 83 pages, it’s clearly a book designed to be enjoyed while warming up for a night of barhopping/debauchery/jail time. However, author Keith Strausbaugh does little to raise any portion of the story into the realm of “funny.”

Beer and Loathing follows eight random dudes, mostly in their junior years of college, as they spend spring break among a multitude of other random dudes in a hotel (appropriately called The Summit) in Panama City. Somehow, despite the page length, the week’s events take much longer to unravel than they should, like that guy who has no sense of how to tell a story but is super excited about the time he and his buddies were totally sloshed and did something dumb.

Although it’s difficult to extract oneself from a bad storyteller in person, with a book it’s a much simpler affair: Set it down and walk away. And Strausbaugh is no wordsmith. In his attempt to achieve something of the Hunter S. Thompson style referenced in the book’s title, Strausbaugh’s prose devolves into a choppy mess of misplaced punctuation and feeble satire. Case in point: By the end of the book I was pretty confident he has no idea how we use commas in the English language.

And his attempts at social commentary? At one point he writes of a group of beach-going partiers: “We’re a bunch of Cro-Magnon Mogleys well-versed in grotesque tableaus.” What? A few pages ago you were making cheap, filthy bathroom jokes and now you’re Jeff-fucking-Goldblum in Jurassic Park? Frankly, the writing is nearly unbearable in parts. These entitled frat boys (including one whose dad gives him an unlimited Exxon credit card for the trip) don’t just have “time to kill” before the hotel opens, they have “time to slaughter.” That’s still a cliché, broseph, even if it’s dressed up in a $200 polo shirt with three buttons undone and the collar popped.

Part of the book’s ostensible charm is that it claims to be totally true. Highlights include a scene in which Strausbaugh and his friends draw on their blacked-out buddy with a marker and shave his eyebrows off and a scene where one of the guys steals an entire crate of Hot Tamales — that’s right, the candy — from someone in the hotel lobby.

Strausbaugh writes: “Somewhere in the lobby was a man missing his tamales, and that makes me laugh every time I think about it.” Yeah? It makes me wonder what you and your friends do for fun when you’re not on spring break. Everyone at the country club must think you guys are real crazy.

Look, if the story’s great, even an unpolished writer can be entertaining. And a great author can take a lame night of drinking and turn it into something worth reading. But if the story’s not there and neither is the writing, a lame night of drinking (or, in this case, a lame week of drinking) remains exactly that.


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