“We descended, and found that once we had drunk the nectar of this particular netherworld, we could never go home.” Wesley Straton ’11 read this sentence from her inventive debut novel, “The Bartender’s Cure,” at an Oct. 12 Center for Humanistic Inquiry Think Tank event, perfectly encapsulating her book’s theme of embracing change.
Straton came to Amherst as a part of the College’s Visiting Writers Series, a program sponsored by the Creative Writing Center. Straton is the third author this semester to read from a new work and facilitate a conversation about it. With her brilliant pink hair, friendly smile, and down-to-earth nature, Straton instantly put the audience at ease when she stepped up to the podium.
Professor of English Judith E. Frank, a faculty member at the Creative Writing Center, introduced Straton. Frank explained that they were Straton’s senior thesis advisor, quipping that they were taken aback when they first met Straton because she was just “so California.” Frank’s pride for their former student was touching, especially when they expressed their gratitude to be on the ground floor of Straton’s flourishing writing career.
Straton read aloud two excerpts from “The Bartender’s Cure,” one from the beginning of the novel and another from a few chapters in. The novel follows Sam, a recent college graduate who begrudgingly gets a job at a bar called Joe’s Apothecary after suffering a breakup and moving onto her best friend’s couch in New York City. Although she was thrust into the world of bartending, Sam learns to love the industry and the community at Joe’s.
Straton’s “Californian” nature was exemplified by her relaxed, effortless delivery of her meticulous prose. She soared through Sam’s anxieties and uncertainties with a soothing, lighthearted tone, ensuring the audience understood that everything will resolve in the end despite current uneasiness. Straton, who worked as a bartender herself for many years, uses her novel to reject the notion commonly sputtered by higher education that working in the service industry is a sign of social failure. Instead, she highlights beauty and power in the art of bartending through Sam’s uplifting transformation and the care with which she crafts each word and bartending reference.
Each chapter of the novel begins with a different cocktail recipe, and the novel’s narrative is frequently interrupted by “bartending lessons.” These informative tangents are infused with humor and wit, implicitly characterizing Sam by merging her unique voice and experiences into bartending education.
In the Q&A session following her captivating reading, Straton explained that she chose each cocktail at the beginning of each chapter deliberately. For example, Straton read a chapter beginning with the recipe for a Negroni, in which the characters humorously discuss Count Camillo Negroni’s invention of the cocktail and recognize its popularity among different bar patrons. This discussion gives insight into unexpected moments of human connection, an important lesson for Sam as she forms relationships with her new coworkers. Straton’s novel tests the limits of traditional fiction, succeeding in being engaging and heartwarming while also delightfully educational.
During Straton’s visit to Amherst, she made a visit to Frank’s Fiction Writing I class and shared her writing process with students.
“She was amazing,” said Gracie Rowland ’25, a Fiction Writing I student who also attended Straton’s event. “She talked about the importance of having a community of trusted readers that will give harsh critiques on your first drafts. She also shared her ‘icks’ for writing, urging us to not try too hard to sound intelligent and avoid clunky prose by thinking about how people actually talk. It was just so great to see someone from Amherst that is so down-to-earth, so successful, and so kind.”
After hearing Straton’s reading, Gracie bought “The Bartender’s Cure” for herself. “I’m about a third of the way through it and it’s amazing,” she told me, urging all members of our community to read this engaging novel.
Students asked Straton for writing advice during the Q&A session. Unsurprisingly, considering her unique work, she rejected conventional recommendations to write every day and “kill your darlings.” Straton explained that it’s OK to be attached to your work and stand up for it, and that even if you have to take a break from writing, you can still bounce back and pursue your goals. Her advice offers grace and kindness to aspiring writers, further expressing her novel's theme that change, nonconformity, and self-love can create incredible outcomes.