“Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” – Author Unknown
If you are familiar with the name William Lashner, you likely have read some of his Victor Carl mysteries. This is not part of that series. Frankly, I started reading the book because after several nonfiction reads I was ready for something lighter and I found the title intriguing. It is not often I encounter the term “barkeep,” but it certainly has a better ring for a book title than “The Bartender” or “The Mixologist.” It was serendipity that I was intrigued, as this book is a gritty little gem, reminiscent of the 1950s film noir and Raymond Chandler novels but better written.
Justin Chase is the barkeep. He is a 29-year-old graduate of Northwestern and Penn Law who has never practiced law because he never took the bar exam. Yes, the author enjoys a little play on words. Justin changed his mind about becoming a lawyer six years previously after coming home to find his mother dead, beaten to death in the foyer. His father was convicted of the murder, and Justin helped put him there. After spending a year in an asylum, Justin took to bartending, practicing Zen, drinking nothing stronger than tea, and moving frequently with his prized copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in tow.
Eventually, he comes back to his hometown, Philadelphia, where he moves around from bar to bar, establishing a reputation as a reliable, honest barkeep with a large, ever-expanding repertoire. When we meet him, he is at the Zenzibar, which he has chosen because he feels destined to be there. Perhaps he was. One night in walks a particularly unkemptolder man, arms peppered with tattoos, clacking dentures, and a foul mouth and fouler attitude, claiming to Justin that he killed Justin’s mother at the behest of The Preacher. Introducing himself as Birdie Grackler, he claims he is a hired killer, trained by the military in Vietnam as an assassin, and used those skills to earn a livelihood after he left the military. The Preacher is his handler, who tells him who to hit, but never who requests the “job.” Thus, the seed is planted in Justin’s mind that his father, MacKenzie Chase, is serving a prison term for something he did not do.
The beginning chapters of the book are all about character introduction and development with the plot moving along but rather slowly. Since I know nothing about the world of bartending, I found the description of the life “behind the wood” intriguing, including the many recipes for various drinks. Lashner kept all the chapter titles alcohol related, naming most of them after drinks. I know nothing about the world of hired killers either, so this book was a nice escape.
I cannot say I particularly liked any of these characters, except perhaps the old cop, from the very beginning. However, the characters do develop through the course of the story, but it is the plot which enthralled me. There is romance, bromance, familial reunion and a shift of paradigm for one of the characters. Twists and turns are overused and do not really capture Lashner’s storytelling acumen. It is revelation of facts that keeps the story going and keeps the reader turning the pages. I found this a fun, satisfying read. On a scale of 0 to 5, I give it 3 for characters and 3.75-4.0 for story.
The Barkeep is not available at the public library, but it is available in e-book formats and paperback. See the author’s website for further information: williamlashner.com.