Book + Beer: Dortmunder and Siberia
Possibly Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is meta, as in many times I felt I was trapped within its 544 pages, or book as Siberia (a land mass that is 1/12th of the earth and 77% of Russia [though it contains only 25% of the population of that country]), a slog, лонг травел, shall we say, though—like the author to his subject—I did return again and again (Frazier labels his emotions about the region as “dread Russia-love.” The man takes 11 trips to Russia for this book!). I felt the attraction, and the dread. Let’s put it this way: I never felt exiled, per say, to the steppes of seemingly blizzardly white pages. But I was often exhausted. I shall return to this exhaustion after I crack open this bottle of beer: TSSST. My thirst and fatigue is one result of Frazier’s technique.
What beer? Great Lakes Brewing Company Dortmunder Gold. First thing, you can’t go blar with any Great Lakes beer. They make glow beer. Period. The Dortmunder Gold has a cool name (sounds sort of like a type of Salvia divinorum or maybe an office award ceremony or possibly an over/under shotgun manufactured in Belgium), a cool pedigree (multiple time world beer champion gold medalist), and a cool alcohol content, at a reasonable 5.8%. It will make your head go whoosh-whoosh, clang.
Technique of Ian Frazier? Let me digress: I’m at this July 4 party and this older gentleman sets down his beer (Coors) and tells us a story about how one day in the 1940’s, as a small kid, he strolled about his aunt’s farm and entered a dark, dusty barn and there was a body hanging from a rope tied to the rafters. Dangling there, a dead man. And so, as a kid, with an odd kid brain, he leaped up and swung back-n-forth on the dead man’s legs, like whippeeeeee! Like it was some game.
Ok…that was a good story. Eerie and riveting. Then this woman next to him tells us about how her refrigerator made this buzzing sound for the last 15 months. It was annoying to her, this buzzing. That was her story. Her seg-way off the dead man story. That was her I’m-going-to-tell-at-parties story. A refrigerator buzzing. See my point? No? My point is Ian Frazier tells us EVERYthing about Siberia, and his time there (again, multiple visits), as opposed to what is INTERESTING. Every. Fucking. Thing. Thirty chapters. This is the source of my exhaustion. Sure, we get the epic, romantic, historical excitement of The Decembrist, but then we get pages and pages on the uses of concrete. Sure, we get the gulags and horrors of the Stalin regime, but then pages of sitting in a car, waiting on a train to arrive, for days. Catherine the Great and tailpipes of a van. Bolsheviks and eating stale mushrooms. Genghis Khan, and, oh, did I mention Russian cows don’t respond to hissing as well as American cows? On and on and on and on and on and on….and, wait, it looks like he’s winding down this chapter, he’s pulling a clear dénouement, uh, NO, NO, no he just went on an aside about mosquitoes, and on and on and on and on and on and on…
Beer number 4 and I notice I have an urge to text someone or purchase something purple on Ebay. Suppose the alcohol is working. Excellent. A little bit pancakey, but with a nice hop crispness and a smooth, sugarish finish. I’ve eaten a cookie with this flavor, maybe in Michigan? Very complex, like a Russian, especially for a lager. Nice, white, lacing! Nice, white lacing! Lacing! I love lace. This lacing reminds me of the snow. What snow? About 76% of the way through Travels in Siberia, after thousands and thousands of miles, Ian Frazier realizes he went to Siberia in the summer. He missed the snow. So, he goes back. To experience the snow. Snow. Snow.
But why did I return to such exhaustion? Well, look, I enjoy learning something as I read. I now know about Siberia. Don’t even try me in Siberia trivia. I’ll go black bread on your ass. I’ll go all Rasputin up in your grill. I know Siberia. I know reindeer and reindeer herders and Siberian tigers and plastic bottles and permafrost (up to 2000 feet deep!) and vodka and grape jelly and herring and the mechanics of the brain (We use it mainly for scheming) and brooms associated in America with witches and drunk dentists and drunk train engineers and Jewel (the singer) and helicopter rides and headscarves and bright colors (Russians like bright colors in crazy, clashing combinations) and the Trans-Siberian railway and dogs and little roads leading to the village and seat-belts (Russians do not use seat-belts) and penal colonies and endless litter (in Siberia, everyone litters—the highway shoulders are mountains of trash) and illness and fences (nope, don’t use them) and Lenin’s tomb (His dead body was often scurried away to Siberia during times of war) and methane bubbles rising from deep lakes and car exhaust and The Romanovs and grass fields and 50 gallon diesel drums (Siberia must import its fuel, so the landscape is dotted with tens of thousands of empty metal drums) and fishing lures made of actual soup spoons and Alexander the Third and other men such as Alaska men marrying Russian women and whale bones and silver statues and old churches and the border of Mongolia and Japanese cars and footpaths and hot, Russian baths (Banyas) and war and war and war and Pushkin and the largest lake in the world (Baikal) is very, very, gem-like clear and the mixed forest belt and the steppe zone and two couple swimming naked in its waters and Siberian intelligentsia and white birds in green moss (dispersing like pollen) and Teutonic knights and a supernatural saint who sailed up a river on a grindstone and gold mining camps (costing 3 million lives of slave labor) and dust and mud and snow and more vodka and more snow and a whole lot/whole lot/whole lot of others things. On and on. And on.
Odor? Malts, some hops, yeasty, that smell just after cutting the yard, sharp aroma, a tad bit bready but I like bready. Lemonish hoppy struck to the forehead. Slighty bitter and floral. Some nut, sugars and some lemon. Did I mention lemon? Citrusy. Sure, tongue gets initially throttled with bitter, but then those malts come and say, “Relax little tongue, chill out, my good pal…” then everything smooths out. Aftertaste a slight, slight Lemon Pledge, but it doesn’t last but four seconds. This is one glow lager, folks. Probably one of the best you’ll find in this country. Seriously. Medals, gold.
Did I mention Travels in Siberia can be funny? Some even refer to Frazier as a humorist, but that might be pushing it. The book has its moments and running gags (the van breaking down, Frazier’s language gaffes, the grumpy guides, etc.) and several humorous set-scenes (cows entering the camp, the mosquitoes so thick Frazier has to wear bee-keeping equipment, etc.). We need this humor, because Siberia can often be (and historically has been) a humorless land. This is the land of exile. You don’t go there for laughs. But no one is going to argue Siberia as not fascinating. Large and crazy. Huge and tilting. Laughing while melting. Frazier is drawn into its grip, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. And, as I said, as reader, I likewise returned again and again. Exhaustive, yes, but also accurate and perceptive. It does capture a large bit of Siberia. Did it make me want to go there? Not really. It made me want to drink this last beer. But I’ll give it this, a high compliment for travel writing: the book made me feel more than a little bit like I’d been.