Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze

  • Edited by Kate Lebo and Samuel Ligon
  • Sasquatch Books
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Tayla Burney
  • November 2, 2017

To enjoy this uneven collection, you may need a drink.

We’ve all been there. Excitedly laying the groundwork for the denouement of a story that we think is hilarious, poignant, or at least — in some way — reaction-worthy. Only to have our rapt audience at the cocktail party, in the office conference room, or around the dinner table respond with a resounding, “Oh.”

Turns out, you had to be there. Sometimes an atmosphere is so much a part of the story that divorcing the two means the latter will inevitably fall flat on its own.

Such, alas, is the case with Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze. A promising setup that has all the ingredients one might expect would lead to a great payoff. Instead, the collection leaves you hungry for...well, pie. And whiskey. And a more consistent read.

The origins of this collection of short stories, poems, and other pieces sounds genuinely fun and like a wonderful time. As the editors lay it out, this collection grew out of a gathering in Spokane, Washington, back in 2012 where, the founders say, they struck on a formula wherein “the writers and the audience feed off each other…”

That makes perfect sense. Reading through the pages, you do get a sense of the spirited abandon that comes when you pump people full of booze and dessert and bring them together to be regaled by talented writers’ stories. The problem arises when there is no audience, plural. It’s just you. And the page. And you may or may not have whiskey and/or pie on hand.

That’s not to say it’s bad, or all bad, at least. Some of the pieces really work. Jess Walter (“Beautiful Ruins”) contributes a story about grown children reckoning with their parents’ divorce around a Thanksgiving table. It captures the chaos that can underpin seemingly tidy suburban life while managing to stay on theme without being too on the nose.

Another standout, collection editor Kate Lebo’s short essay about the house featured in the classic masterpiece “American Gothic,” is charming and left me feeling like I’d learned something. And Gary Lilley’s poetry shoots straight, no chaser, and is all the more effective for not trying too hard.

Beyond these and a few other highlights, though, I was left wondering: What is it about whiskey that makes people feel like they have something to prove? Drink it or don’t, but stop trying to impress me with your posturing around it. Which raises another quirk — the collection features recipes, as well. If you’re a drinks aficionado who thinks there might be some winners herein, beware.

Instead of enhancing the value of the book with legitimate cocktails, you instead get experiential riffs that call for ingredients like “a hatchet,” “1 sister wife chore wheel,” and “3 packs Tareytons.” Don’t worry — those are all in separate recipes. But what’s really confounding is that the recipes for baked goods are all perfectly straightforward and executable.

The dual nature of the recipes captures the overall feeling the collection left me with: one of confusion. I just didn’t get it. And that’s okay. Maybe you had to be there.

Tayla Burney is an avid reader and the creator of WAMU Books. She is passionate about literacy, but tweets entirely too much at @taylakaye. Tayla writes a weekly literary newsletter for readers in the DC region; find it here.

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