Re-Reading Cowboy Fengís Space Bar and Grill -
by Steven Brust: http://mervih.wordpress.com/2010/07/...bar-and-grill/ and another review: http://cloggie.org/books2/2011/05/co...-steven-brust/
Cowboy Fengís Space Bar and Grille
published in 1990
Sometimes when Iím depressed I go on a book reading binge ó I managed to read every Wheel of Time book up to Lord of Chaos in a week when I was at a low point during my time at college. Pure escapism, fleeing into a story to temporarily ignore the world around me. A few weeks ago I fled back in that habit when my wife was having a very bad night, the day before she had to go back to hospital again. I was sleeping on the couch to try and give her an easier nightís sleep but then couldnít sleep myself, so I grabbed the nearest book at hand. This turned out to be Cowboy Fengís Space Bar and Grille.
Which perhaps wasnít the best book to keep the night terrors at bay. Cowboy Fengís Space Bar and Grille is a strange book, if only because itís one of Steven Brustís rare science fiction novels, but also because itís a light adventure story about a Strange Bar, set amongst a series of nuclear holocausts. Amongst Brust fans itís apparently a bit of a controversial book with some hating it, but for me it was the right book at the right time. It may be strange to think of a book that has a succession of nuclear wars at its heart as comforting, but thatís what it was.
Itís comforting because Brust makes it so. The nuclear death is in the background, while in the foreground we get the story of the bar that has the best matzo ball soup in the galaxy, as well as some of the best Irish musicians. Whether or not Billy, the protagonist narrating the story in first person, counts himself amongst them remains unrevealed. This is the picture you get in the first few sentences and the cozy atmosphere it evokes neutralises much of the existential dread the nukes evoke. It reminds me of the urban fantasy people like Emma Bull and other of the Scribblies ó a group Brust of course belonged to too ó were writing in the eighties.
Cowboy Fengís Space Bar and Grille has a habit of turning up in cities on the brink of a nuclear war. First in London, during the last war Earth would ever experience, then in a Lunar Colony six years later, followed by a bounce to Jerrysport on Mars, which is where the book opens, in the middle of a nuclear alert and then an actual attack. Once that fades the bar finds itself in New Quebec, an extraterrestial colony founded several hundred years after the nuking of Jerrysport. Billy and his Cowboy Feng fellow travellers attempt to find out whatís happening and who is behind these nuclear attacks. Things get personal when the enemy starts to lob not just nuclear missiles at them, but sends in assassins with guns. And they still have a bar to run as wellÖ
While the search for this mystery and the fight of the Cowboy Feng regulars against the shadowy conspiracy behind the attacks structures the novel, this is not where the heart of the book lies. Thatís in the the everyday business of a greasy spoon/dive bar, the adventures of Billy and his bandmates as Irish folk musicians plunging into the musical scene of New Quebec and so on. This can be annoying if all youíre interested in is solving the mystery (which, to be honest, doesnít turn out to be all that interesting in the end), but I liked these sort of extended mood pieces where not much happens plotwise. Iíve always liked that sort of thing, whether itís in a Travis McGee adventure, or Archie Goodwin describing dinner at Nero Wolfeís home, or here having Brust letting his protagonist cooking breakfast described in great detail.
Brust breaks up the first person narration with short intermezzos showing some of the history of the various regulars, as well as the bar itself, which only start to make sense towards the end, as everything is pulled together. The climax is a bit disappointing, if only because the story is over, but also because the mystery, as said, is not that interesting, with the motivation of the baddies being particularly weak.
But never mind, as the journey itself was worth it. This is a strange novel, but for me it was exactly what I needed.