The Alehouse at the End of the World, by Stevan Allred. Portland, Oregon: Forest Avenue Press, November 2018. 334 pages. $17.95, paper.
Featuring a motley crew cast of misfits well-suited for a Monty Python-esque romp of mythical proportions, Stevan Allred’s new novel, The Alehouse at the End of the World, is a tale fit for our troubling modern times of tyrants, travails, and turmoil. Set in the fantasy world of the Isle of the Dead, our hero is a simple fisherman who travels to the afterlife through the gastrointestinal system of a disgruntled whale in an effort to be reunited with his recently departed wife, whom he’d already been marooned from for some time. Upon this zany island of the afterlife are demi-gods—who take the shape of large, various birds—including a megalomaniacal crow who cheekily resembles our current bombastic Commander-in-Chief. On top of all of that, the entire world resides within the belly of an enormous creature bent on existence based upon a warped personal interpretation of Descartes’s creed: I eat, therefore I am. But don’t let its fantastical setting and characters fool you— The Alehouse at the End of the World is no children’s tale; rather, it is a hilarious and endearing story of friendship, perseverance, and love—all in epic proportions.
Immediately obvious within this delightfully detailed novel is Allred’s gift for deranged humor. Be it through simple fart jokes (foul winds on the Isle of the Dead are often just the massive beast they reside within passing gas) or an elaborate scene set to build with a well-timed payoff, the humor ranges extensively, from simple and effective to wide-ranging and affective. And much like Monty Python’s search for the Holy Grail, Allred is not above a good sight gag embedded within the realm of fantasy. For instance, in one scene, our hero, the fisherman, finds that the soul of his beloved has become trapped within a clamshell. Struggling to find a way to release her from her clammy fate, one of the demi-deities, a wise pelican, suggests an unusual method to release his lost love from her shell:
“Try kissing her,” the pelican said, “it often works in fairy tales.”
The fisherman, dubious, furrowed his forehead, although really he had nothing to lose by trying, and he looked the clam all around, considering the proper place to apply his lips. The clamshell, he decided, was not very kissable, but he kissed it anyway, a bird-like peck with his lips. Nothing happened.
“That’s no kiss,” the frigate bird said. “Kiss her like you mean it.”
The fisherman closed his eyes, remembering the soft kisses of his beloved, how she nibbled at his lips, how she moaned when he returned the favor along the sweet skin of her neck. He put his lips to the clamshell, kissing it up one side and down the other.
Allred also uses his talents with humor in measured balance alongside his gifts as a wordsmith, of which there is plenty of evidence within this book. In one scene, the fisherman joins the bird gods to smoke some hashish and the author describes the ensuing scene with a balance of well-crafted imagery and subtle hilarity:
The hashish smokers were well lit, all four of them, the fisherman so thoroughly ‘shish-faced that his head was an anthill, and his thoughts were ants, waving their feelers at one another as they crawled along the tunnels of his mind.
For all of its humor, though, The Alehouse at the End of the World is certainly much more. At a time when many in our country are fed up with the current state of politics and our ineffectual leaders, this novel offers readers a timely tale into the vanquishing of a top despot. Though the antagonist of this book is an egotistical crow god hellbent on ruling the Isle of the Dead through fear, intimidation, and a demand for blind admiration, it should come as no surprise that the story draws some immediate parallels to the orange man who currently sits in the oval office. Allred has given his readers a fascinating novel not only for its sheer pleasure of fantasy and epic storytelling, but also because the story’s narrative arc very closely resembles our state of affairs in modern America. One would be hard-pressed not to spot the similarities, and while this can sometimes be a detriment to a good fairy tale, it is a strength within Allred’s work due to his cunning way of masking much of the obvious—though, perhaps, the story might have been written before our current times and our political world and leaders have just come to resemble the classic mythos of good vs. evil … either way, the combination is a winning one.
As with all stories of the classic hero’s journey, the reader follows the protagonist as he travels far and wide, meeting all types of mythical beasts and helpers along the way, in an effort to set the world right once again. And as with many of many such tales, Allred injects his novel with many valuable lessons along the way. Key among these are the themes of friendship and bravery, with a keen sense on the difference between right and wrong. Our protagonist, the fisherman, is not always wise, as are none of the main characters, but when they rely upon the strengths of one another, they rise above challenges. And while love is a theme also deeply-rooted within this story, it isn’t the simple trope of “love conquers all” that many of these stories resolve with. Instead, Allred presents his readers with a much more complicated and layered vision of love—love that takes times to grow, love that can unwillingly fail, and love that sometimes slips away, but for the best. It is in these tender and reflective moments that Allred’s talents truly shine.
In all, The Alehouse at the End of the World is an incredible journey into a world that at first seems like it could not be more different from our own, what with the giant shapeshifting bird gods, whales pooping humans, and massive farting creatures who swallowed the island of the afterlife, but that’s just the thing—the more you read, the more you understand that Allred has created a world that is just like our own, complete with egoists, despots, well-meaning everyday heroes, and friends looking to change the world. The Alehouse at the End of the World isn’t just a timely story of love, friendship, and social justice, but also a whip-smart mythical tale looking deep into a culture and society very much like our own, brimming with heart, humor, and empathy.
Michael A. Ferro‘s debut novel, TITLE 13, was published by Harvard Square Editions in February 2018. He was named as a finalist by Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in numerous literary journals and print anthologies, including Juked, Monkeybicycle, Crack the Spine, Entropy, Duende, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Vulture, Splitsider, and elsewhere. Additional information can be found at: michaelaferro.com.