One of my favorite moments from Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle comes around the end of the first third of the book. The dysfunctional family, composed of an alcoholic engineer father and a tree-hugging lunatic religious mother and their four kids, inherits a relatively palatial house in Phoenix. (I’ll point out that the mother is a lunatic who happens to be religious, rather than a religious person who is, by extension, a lunatic). The house has termites, though, and before long the floors become unstable, to the point where a misplaced step results in somebody’s foot going through the floor. This proceeds until it can’t any longer, at which point the father enacts a fix which is simultaneously brilliant and idiotic. He buys a six-pack of beer. Downs one. Uses his tin snips to turn the can into a little metal tile. Then hammers the can down over the hole. This process repeats anytime the family kicks a new hole in the floor, which is often. It’s the height of pragmatism — he’s going to drink anyway, so why not use it to fix the floor — and ridiculousness — picture the lovely parquet floor pockmarked with Budweisers and PBRs.
And I have a similar favorite moment in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dude’s hog has a problem with its steering. They know that the repair that’s needed (some sort of ionized stripping installed around the axle or whatever) will be prohibitively expensive; several hundred bucks. The narrator points out that the repair can be effected — not as a stop-gap measure, but well and truly fixed — by snipping a beer can open, cutting it to fit, and wrapping the strip around the steering bits (I don’t cars, sorry NOT SORRY). The beer can, which is oxidized (or un-oxidized or whatever) on the liquid side so as to safely contain the beer, serves as a perfect insulator that won’t break down or rust over time. But the dude isn’t about to have his brand-new motorcycle, the epitome of engineering, repaired by a lowly can of beer. He doesn’t accept that it could work. So he drives it with the janky steering until he can overpay for a “proper” repair.
Why are these moments banging against each other in my head like literary pinballs? Well, I’m nearing the end of the edit on my first novel, and I’m ironing out the last few problems. Spoiler-free, the problems are: I’ve got some characters who pull a disappearing act when they shouldn’t, and others who don’t pull a disappearing act when they should. I’d been mulling the problem for a few days when a startlingly simple solution struck me.
And then today it struck me that maybe the solution was too simple. Too pat. Too surface-level. Maybe I was patching my busted floor with a spent beer can. So I find myself wondering whether I’m fixing these last few problems “properly”. Whether, a la The Glass Castle, I’m using ridiculous if not trashy easy fixes for problems that need deep, structural focus and foundational repair. Or, whether, a la Zen, I’m overthinking things and the beer can is not only adequate, but more elegant and simple than a highfalutin ground-up rethink.
At this point it’s probably impossible for me to know. I mean, I didn’t catch this mistake on my first read-through (nor did one of my readers, actually). My wife caught it. (Thanks, wife!) So the fix probably will look equally fine to me.
There’s only one thing that’s actually clear in all of this.
Beer fixes everything.
If only I liked beer.
One thought on “The Beer-Can Fix”
Brilliant post. Again.
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