‘Guide to Bars’ contains mind-bending tales

San Francisco writer Benjamin Wachs'  short stories are provocative and intriguing.

San Francisco writer Benjamin Wachs' short stories are provocative and intriguing.

“A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City” is hardly something from Fodor’s.

It’s a collection of provocative, brain-teasing and magical short stories by San Francisco writer Benjamin Wachs, whose eclectic resume includes bar columnist, international nightlife reporter, university communications director and a reference to the “San Francisco Institute of Infinite Possibility.”

The stories take place in varied locales, from Venice to San Francisco to a Yangtze riverboat. Some indeed are set in bars, and many include a spot or two of exotic alcohol.

But what these 26 tales have most in common are intriguing encounters and characters on the brink. They’re sassy, brainy, soul-searching, sexy, longing, yearning — and risk-taking. Danger, physical, emotional and psychological, prevails.

“Free Will” describes a wild intellectual faceoff in a newspaper bar between a guy imbibing rare, priceless brandy, a woman in a velvet cocktail dress reading Schopenhauer, and a man in a white suit “who looks like the devil in a movie about New Orleans.”

The unforgettable “Feeding Time” really gets readers seriously thinking about just who might be homeless. In it, several men are awestruck by an old guy on the street who asks for money to buy a sandwich, who also happens to mumble heavy-duty math and physics theories. They take him to a gourmet sub shop, where he dazzles them with his scientific prowess and stuffs his face. The ending isn’t happy.

The creepy “Childhoods on Display in Boston” has a mind-blowing premise: A young woman in need of therapy to overcome an awkward bathroom incident when she was 12 visits an establishment that indexes, catalogs, alphabetizes and peddles diaries of teens and children. The proprietor, a librarian-like “curator of human experience” whose motives may be questionable, narrates the tale of unease.

The only story in the book that doesn’t have a nameless first-person narrator is “Thanatos Cuisine,” about a chef who spices up his love life by creating dishes so hot they’re sadomasochistic, irresistible — and moneymaking.

The more straightforward “Some of the Social Issues Surrounding Jazz” sadly and vividly recounts a lamented talk given by a seasoned black music expert, to an audience of one, in an otherwise empty bar.

A few of the stories are less evocative. “Memoir,” about a person seeking intimate information from an old man, an apparent psychic with a collection of crystals, didn’t resonate for this reader.

BOOK REVIEW
A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City
By Benjamin Wachs
Published by Strange Castle Press
Pages: 150
Price: $15.95

Note: Wachs’ work is part of the free Litquake Lit Crawl event, “Omnibucket: Action Fiction!” at 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Mission Police Station, 630 Valencia St., S.F.

A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred CityBenjamin WachsLit CrawlLitquake

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