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Book Review

Sexism and Violence Brew at a Small-Town Beer Plant

HOMETOWN BREW, by Ellen Akins, Knopf, $22, 234 pages

July 01, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

"Hometown Brew" gives an antically persuasive explanation for why certain women, money aside, might pose for a men's magazine. Alice at 17, serious and shy, suspecting that she might be attractive but unable to get boys to notice, is approached by a photographer:

"What he said was what her mother often said--that she was beautiful in a way that took some looking to see--and it occurred to her that an artist might be able to reveal enough of this alleged beauty that some of the looking it required could be skipped."

Her shortcut succeeds in a zigzag, three-cushion way. A classmate nicknamed Little shows her the magazine nude and asks if it is she. He accepts her vehement denial--he is an innocent himself--"but by showing her the pictures, he'd brought her into his imagination."

Imagination, then: something beyond pornographic fantasy. At her best, Akins is zanily subtle. Imagination, not lust, is Cupid's arrow. However it may arrive, the point--its point--is what it produces. Time passes and there are large turns in both Alice's and Little's lives, but what eventually is produced is love.

"Home Brew" is a jangle of a novel. Akins' witty, near-poetic perceptions about men and women match oddly with her polemic ferocity; she intuits and bashes by turns. It is a contrast that can push insight into inchoate complexity; one that her writing is not supple enough to sustain. Even so, it can be remarkable.

What brings the book to near-ruin is Akins' effort to give fictional form to her ideas, to incarnate them in live characters. When she does so--with the shining exception of Alice and the vague exception of Little--there is a suggestion of Dr. Frankenstein switching a rational human blueprint into clumsy and garish life.

"Brew" is a double: two convergent stories, each allegorizing a woman subjected to the hysterical assaults of a male world no longer confident of its power, and working her way out. In each case, it is the same world: the Gutenbier Brewery, maker of a quality traditional beer, and the main industry in a small Midwestern town.

The working-class Alice gets a job there as an apprentice brewer; at the same time, the upper-class Melissa inherits 46% of the voting stock from her dying father. It is a shock to her brother Frank, who gets 44% even though he had worked steadily in the business and expected to be the heir.

With a symmetry more useful to an argument than a novel, each woman struggles against the men who would keep her down. Alice is harassed, sexually and otherwise, by her fellow workers. Melissa has to deal with Frank's sabotage, ranging from a plea to let him continue as CEO, to the launch of a marketing campaign for a new light beer that she opposes, to a scheme to weaken her position by issuing stock to an outside investor.

The symmetry extends beyond. Melissa has the support of the company's lawyer, Curtis, an older man whose tender protectiveness gradually blooms--or, as it transpires, deteriorates--into an affair. Alice, taking her complaints to Frank, finds ostensible indignation and her own dollop of tender protection--likewise sliding into sex.

Akins is acute on the details of workplace harassment. Alice copes with pornographic photos, "accidental" beer sprayings and a scary grope in the course of the company softball game. Apart from Frank's sabotage, Melissa encounters small but telling boardroom snubs.

Even more acute and troubling is the author's portrayal of the two affairs. Both women, instinctively grateful for male kindness and protection, are willing partners. It is the author's point that the abuse involved is not subjective--both Curtis and Frank could reasonably believe the sex to be mutual--but lies in old patterns of gender dependency and inequality. When Frank consoles Alice after fellow workers have vandalized her house, Akins writes, "the tenderness that swept him was predatory in its force."

The author's cool perceptions, unfortunately, are undermined and sometimes contradicted by her melodramatic instincts. By the end, she makes Frank a craven rat and Curtis a cynical turncoat, when her point about the social structures of sexual abuse would be clearer with a lesser villainy, or even none. None of the characters is grounded or comes into focus--some, such as Frank, are wildly blurred--except for Alice, who is solid in her frailty, and altogether memorable.

As "Home Brew" moves along, insight gives way entirely to melodrama. There is a series of Grand Guignol confrontations, among them assault with a bottle (beer) and the revelation of a shameful family secret. Little, who emerges from the past as Alice's fellow worker, is savagely maimed trying to defend her. Finally, there is a relinquishing of the old battles and symbolic migration into confident enlightenment by the good people. These include the women and Little, whose trial-and-error learning process, as well as his injuries, seem to have graduated a decent man (OK, but not quite enough) into a new one.

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