When I picked up The Greatest Beer Run Ever, it was mostly out of curiosity at its outrageous name. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to not only tell a memoir but is also being adapted into a film by the director of Green Book. The Greatest Beer Run Ever saw a more limited print run in its initial format, but a recent reprint (now that the movie’s in the works) brought this story to my desk. Still, it’s an unbelievable story about the lasting qualities of friendship even under the most unlikely of circumstances.
It’s 1968. American involvement in Vietnam has yet to reach its apex, but nonetheless protestors rail against the war, and against veterans coming home. Sailor and non-combat veteran John “Chick” Donahue is minding his business having a beer one day when the patriotic owner of his favorite bar suggests that somebody should go over to Vietnam, give the soldiers from their neighborhood a beer, a hug, and left them to know that their country appreciates them. Chick gets what a serviceman friend of mine calls “voluntold” – told to volunteer – for the task because Chick’s a merchant mariner and he regularly transports materials for the Army anyway. Chick, nearly 30, agrees since he’s been rejected for reenlistment himself due to age, and for the sheer adventure.
All of this happened. There’s pictures included with the book.
Storyteller Chick spins with as much aplomb as your uncle over family reunion dominoes. Chick gets himself stuck in port in white mod jeans and madras shirts, so he’s a sore thumb in a sea of Army camo. Luckily the Army regularly assumes he works for the CIA, as an episode of The Man from UNCLE comes to life. He has a great love of hyperbole and the vocabulary that only comes from somebody who lived through the highlights of the twentieth century, but he still tells an accurate story. Donahue writes from a philosophy that regards friendship, service, and morality higher than technical rights-and-wrongs. So, he bucks authority when it doesn’t suit him, and witnesses Tet, Vietnamese New Year, in 1968, right as the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army attack.
Chick watches the attacks from streets full of gunfire, as the U.S. defends, counterattacks, and coordinates with the South Vietnamese to take retaliatory measures. While Chick makes sure to lionize those who gave their lives in the battles, his patriotism retains a respect for the enemy. Even as he makes friends within the Thieu regime, the remaining French and Australian ex-pats, he recognizes the extreme inequality in the county and the brutality of irrevocable actions. And yet, despite viewing it all with his eyes open, Chick makes it clear that his loyalty lies with his country. His own values of friendship and solidarity give him a fairly old-fashioned lens with which to view a fractured, complicated event in history.
It’s certainly no spoiler to reveal that Chick makes it home, having found some of the friends on his list. The journey changes him forever, though, leaving a patriotic, loyal man conflicted by the things he and his friends have seen. However, no place seems happier to see him than the family and bar he left behind. The screen adaptation of Chick’s tale comes highly anticipated.
Four out of five stars.