Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Review: Please Don't Come Back from the Moon


I have three main literary interests: 1. Michigan, 2. manhood, and 3. realism in the form of old-style storytelling. Dean Bakopoulos' 2005 debut novel Please Don't Come Back from the Moon satisfies two of the interests - Michigan and manhood - and as Meatloaf said "two out of three ain't bad." And sticking with random Meatloaf quotes (as any good book review should), "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that," may well be the mantra for the novel.

In the first chapter, the fathers of the Polish/Ukranian neighborhood of Maple Rock in Detroit begin to disappear one by one, presumably to northern Michigan cabins or to new jobs in Chicago or the south. Life goes on as normally as possible. Then a shoe store owner leaves a note when he vanishes. "I'm going to the moon," it reads. "I took the cash." Adios, realism. This note is no joke.

The sons of these absentee fathers believe, no, they know their fathers have literally left for the moon. Even if the boys pretend it's a joke and hold onto hope that their fathers will return, they know their fathers have left Earth. They feel it. Bakopoulos slips into what I've seen other reviews of his book describe as a kind of magical realism, but what I consider Detroit's introduction to allegory.

The fatherless, white, blue-collar boys start boozing and fighting in neighborhood bars. They skip school, deflower young women, disobey mothers, play with guns, and go on booze- and pill-fueled drives to northern Michigan in "borrowed" vehicles, hoping beyond hope to find a clue of their fathers. The mothers become depressed, then spiteful and permisscous, and ultimately drunk and detached from their sons. Without their fathers, the boys don't know how to become men, and their mothers don't know how to teach them. The boys are completely on their own, and doomed to a life of never ending youth.

This is what I see as the conceit of the novel. The city of Detroit - like other largely Black inner-cities - has one glaring problem that informs every other problem that befalls the city: Absentee fathers. The twist in Please Don't Come Back from the Moon is that this sad stereotype is overlayed onto a white, working class neighborhood. The reader watches as this fatherless community is ravaged, and declines into crime and hopelessness. The factory jobs leave and all that's left are minimum wage retail jobs, and eventually those jobs start to vanish too. No jobs, no fathers, addiction, and crime plague the neighborhood. The narrator Mikey often comments on the large amount of garbage and grime littering the once pristine streets. Is the reader supposed to feel this devastation more because the characters are white, or is this just Bakaopoulos' ticket into the life of the inner-city? It's hard to say.

Bakopoulos sometimes shifts into straight realism, questioning the fantasy.  The sons grow to be men. They shack up with a woman, buy her son a new toy, drink her booze, mow her lawn. There is almost personal growth and development. There is almost hope. But just when the reader, right along with the boys, starts to feel "real," the sons develop a case of wanderlust, and like their fathers, are pulled toward the moon - literally floating from Earth, released from gravity. "Like an eye," Mikey says, "the moon follows us wherever we go." Perpetual failure is a learned trait that follows them through life.  These sons of absentee fathers will do anything for the illusion of love - lie, cheat, steal, suffer, work, tough it out occasionally - but become men? No, they won't do that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I Tip My Hat to the Earle

When I want to fancy it up with some good, strong cocktails I go the Earle. The grotto, the friendly bartenders, jazz in the background, a Manhattan for me, a White Russian for the lady; it’s as close as I get to Mad Men, and the basement bar is a nice escape from the bustle of Ann Arbor. For my second anniversary I finally went all-out and dined on the French cuisine, courtesy of a voucher from a generous employer. The food did not disappoint, nor did the price (almost free).

I started with an Old Fashioned and my wife a White Russian. We toasted our anniversary and she pointed out (happily) that she “got a big sip of vodka,” a welcome change to the diluted, milky drinks at lesser bars. As always, whiskey is good. The Earle knows this.

My appetizer was a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp, and my wife ordered cheese-filled tortellini baked with prosciutto and freshly grated nutmeg. The shrimp was great and I was pleased with the large amount of dressing. The tortellini was also good, what I was able to steal away, that is.

Just looking through the wine list is impressive, though I do wish they had some Michigan wines available.  I’m sort of a reverse wine snob that way. We settled on a bottle of Bordeaux, Chateau La Fleur Peyrabon 1999. It’s hard to ignore the ridiculous mark-up of wine in restaurants, a $15 bottle at $50. That said, I enjoy the pomp and circumstances of having someone open the bottle for me. It was a good wine, but I probably would have been happy with anything given the quality of our meals.

For my entrée - Sautéed Beef Tenderloin with Roquefort, “deglazed with Madeira and pan-sauced with cream and Roquefort, topped with walnuts and pine nuts.” The tenderloin was medium rare, and the blood mixed and swirled in the sauce. The blue cheese flavor was mild, but delicious. Heaven? I was happy to have bread on a table to soak up the extras.

My wife’s whitefish was even better than my meal. The fillet comes “coated with ground hazelnuts and breadcrumbs, sautéed and served with a chive beurre blanc on a bed of sautéed spinach.” Thankfully I was able to finish what she couldn’t. The sauce was creamy and light, and was great with the spinach. This is probably the worst possible way to compliment a dish, but I now understand why dogs roll in fish on the beach, because I wanted to roll in this meal. Perhaps dogs have the same visceral reaction to fish. They just have different tastes in seasoning, preparation, and freshness. But the fact remains; sometimes food is so good you want to roll in it first.

We were too full for dessert, but did have an espresso and a glass of port for a nice, slow comedown. Check out the Earle online, and reserve a seat at Opentable.com

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Michigan Beer Tour Revisited

I must need a vacation. I've been thinking a lot lately about scenic drives, beer, my wife. You know, the good stuff. Two years ago on our honeymoon we went booze-cruising up the Pike, sampling beers from Kalamazoo to Traverse City, and points in between. I blogged about it back then, when I was a better blogger. I've decided to dust the post off, just for the heck of it. At the time I regretted that we didn't hit every brewery. Now I'm seeing this as an excuse to relive the adventure.


Michigan is home to over 70 breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs; close to the total number of counties in the Great Lakes State. This means that anywhere you find yourself in Michigan you're sure to be near some quality craft beer. Could there be a better reason to go on a road trip? Here's a synopsis of our trip... to dream -

Bell's, Kalamazoo

To be fair, we actually started our trip at Arcadia, but Bell's seemed the more fitting start for the post. Every beer lover in Michigan should make the pilgrimage to Bell's at least once in their lifetime. I recommend a nice day to sit outside in the beer garden. Try to go early to avoid the WMU hippies - they sleep late. The cool thing about visiting Bell's is the chance to sample some of their exclusive-to-the-bar beers. We all love a good Oberon or Two Hearted, but Bell's tends to have some interesting options on tap. I recommend getting a flight, if for nothing else than that the beers come served on a wooden tray in the shape of Michigan. Divine.

HopCat, Grand Rapids

Just a short drive up 131, lovely Grand Rapids. Of the "new" bars in GR, HopCat is one of the best. Recently ranked the #3 Beer Bar in the World by Beer Advocate, HopCat specializes in Michigan beers, with hundreds of varieties on tap, and hosts rotating guest brewers who share their recipes with the droves on Ionia Avenue. With so much to choose from, it's a surprise that my favorite menu item is the Killer Mac & Cheese - add bacon, chicken, and basil - nothing does a better job of soaking up high-octane beverage and getting a beer tourist back on the highway.

New Holland Brewing, Holland

New Holland is my second favorite beer brewing operation in the state (bless you Keweenaw). Here's three simple reasons to love New Holland:
  1. The High Gravity Series - if you love Mad Hatter, which I most certainly do, try an Imperial Hatter, a Mad Hatter on steroids, 9.4% alcohol. Also recommended, per my wife, Night Tripper Imperial Stout. She puts me to shame with her love of dark beers but is no match for the 10.8% alcohol content.
  2. Great Branding - New Holland is clean and, dare I say, family friendly. They have great pictures on the labels, which helps if you spend enough time there, and beers named for literary figures; the Poet, Mad Hatter, Ichabod Pumpkin Ale.
  3. Outdoor seating - Anyone from the east side of the state that tells you west Michigan is too conservative is just jealous of all the tall, blond, beautiful people to watch while sipping your beer from a seat on the sidewalk. Hello, Europe.
Jamesport Brewing Company, Ludington

The next logical step from Grand Rapids would be Old Boys in Spring Lake. Unfortunately, we skipped it and headed straight up 31 to Ludington. Jamesport suits Ludington - unassuming, solid dining, and naturally flavored beers. I have German, my wife a stout. There's a comforting earthiness to the beer, reminicent of my childhood summer's in Ludington - tugboat Annie, House of Flavors, Hamlin Lake. It's a comfortable place to be. When you're done being nostalgic, set your sights on Traverse City and head first to North Peak Brewing & Mackinaw Brewing, in that order. Both are solid, but I consider them starters for the new kid on the block -

Right Brain Brewery, Traverse City

Right Brain likes to push the envelope of beer production - asparagus beers, pepper beer, and lots of spiced ales. I was a big fan of their Stuck Truck American Oatmeal Stout (aptly named if you in fact drove a truck up north), a dark beer that goes down smooth in high quantities. If Right Brain is the last stop on your cruise, and you presumably have a place to crash in TC, I suggest getting an entire growler of this black nectar and putting yourself straight to sleep - also potentially your excuse to sleep on the drive back downstate.

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To get started on your own Michigan beer tour, pick up a copy of "Michigan Breweries" by Paul Ruschmann & Maryanne Nasiatka. This book provides a great overview with descriptions and maps. Some of the newer breweries are missing, but that's all part of the adventure. Note: This writer does not endorse drinking and driving. Finish your beer before getting back on the road.