I love good beer, and I love to travel. I also enjoy reading about both. I find beer writing more interesting than wine writing, because beer experts tend to be less stuffy about their craft than wine experts. And a good travel writer can make you feel almost as though you were along for the ride. So I jumped at the chance to review Pint-Sized Ireland: In Search Of The Perfect Guinness. Writing about travel and beer! What could be better?
Well, as it turns out, it could be better if someone else wrote it.
Australian Evan McHugh is a newspaper columnist, and has written for radio and TV. He has a non-stop sense of humor, in that gruff, self-deprecating, non-self-conscious manner of Australian males. I’m sure it makes for fun and lively newspaper columns, but over the course of a book, even a relatively short one like this, it got on my nerves.
Believe me, I tried very hard not to come off like some blue-nosed book reviewer with a stick up his arse. And there were quite a few things I liked about Pint-Sized Ireland. But in the end, the nerve-grating humor got the better of me.
The book has a slight but amusing premise. McHugh and his traveling companion would tour Ireland, searching for the perfect glass of Guinness. It seems a fairly good way for a travel writer on a small budget to write off a massive pub crawl, meet lots of fun and interesting people and see a beautiful country to boot. But right off the bat, he set my teeth on edge. First, he admits that he’s never tasted Guinness, and is a little afraid of it. He’s spent his whole life, apparently, drinking lager, that bubbly yellow water that passes for beer in Australia, and much of the rest of the Western world. But that’s inexcusable in the 21st Century. Admittedly, I live in Oregon, which over the past 20 years has become one of the prime locations in the world for craft brewing — but I was aware that mass-produced lagers were but pale imitations of real beer and ale 30 years ago and more. Back when Oregon was pretty much a backwater in all senses of the word, you could get a decent imported English stout here. For a travel writer to not have tasted something as common as Guinness until he’s on the ferry from Liverpool to Ireland is daft.
Then, on the second page of the narrative, when McHugh is making a point of how oddly the Irish spell things — such as the ferry port city of Dun Laoghgaire, pronounced dun-leary — he says that’d be like spelling his traveling companion’s name (Michelle) as “Twidkiwodm.” Which he then proceeds to do, for the entire rest of the book. So every time he refers to Michelle, you have to read Twidkiwodm and translate it to Michelle.
And then, McHugh is far too attached to the figure of speech known as the simile. This book would be about one-third its length if it were shorn of every lengthy passage that starts, “It was as if. . . .” or words to that effect. As in his description of his sense of wonder at finding a small castle on the town square in Donegal: “. . . like it was cold hanging out on some windswept bluff in the countryside, decided to come into town for a pint, got too comfortable, and stayed.” I got good at spotting these labored rhetorical devices and skipping over them.
The writing is uneven, to say the least. On page 92, there’s this description of a lake:
It must be hard being a famous lake. One day you’re minding your own business, lapping your shores. The next there are all these cruise boats motoring up and down with commentaries explaining why you’re so special. Soon you find yourself worrying how your scenery looks. Are those clouds making the light shift the right way? Are your waters crystal-clear enough? No wonder the Killarney Lakes are renowned for having changing moods.
But then, within just a few pages, he gives a splendid and actually funny account of his own adventure on that same lake — rowing across the lake with a German man in full Scottish regalia standing up in the rowboat, playing bagpipes. After all of McHugh’s labored attempts at humor, I finally laughed out loud. The German man was busking around Ireland with his pipes, wearing a tartan kilt made out of material that in Scotland would only be worn by a woman:
In the setting sun, a rowboat cut across the still Irish waters while the lone figure of a giant red-bearded German bagpiper (in a woman’s dress) stood in the stern playing reels . . . Whenever a (tour) boat came near enough Helge broke off to yell across the water at them. ‘Beer. Give us beer. Ve vant more beer.’
I actually learned a few things, including the disturbing fact that folks in the Donegal area drink milk with their Guinness — not out of the same glass, but they often have a pint of milk alongside their pint of stout and take alternate swallows, apparently. As my sainted mother would say, “ish.”
Too topical for a straight humor book, Pint-Sized Ireland is not detailed enough for a travel guide. After the first couple of chapters, I found no compelling reason to go on except that I was committed to review it. Like Dave Barry’s writing, McHugh is fine in doses the length of a newspaper column, but his style doesn’t sustain a whole book. Maybe I was just too sober when I read it.
(Thomas Dunne Books, 2007)