So think about the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival for a minute. Five stages, fifty-odd performers, half a million spectators, great fun had by all. Now imagine that, instead of five stages, there were thirty-five. And instead of fifty-odd performers, there were three hundred. Instead of having to choose between five acts performing simultaneously, you had to choose between twelve. And imagine if each of those acts -- no matter if it was Hazel Dickens or Bill Callahan or Jeff Tweedy or John Doe -- was allowed to perform one, single, solitary song, no more than five minutes in length. THEN you'll start to get a sense of how head-spinningly jampacked Litquake was this year. Battling a cold that never quite took hold yet never quite went away, I valiantly attended as many Litquake events as humanly possible, all for the benefit of you, dear readers. I'll tell you as much as I remember.
Sunday: OCD, Torture, and Fun at the Library
Last Sunday, October 7th, I managed to make it to the last few hours of Off The Richter Scale, two full days of five minute readings at the Main Library's Koret Auditorium, grouped by theme. I walked in as Jeff Bell read in his authoritative radio voice about obsessive-compulsive disorder, specifically, his comsuming fear that he'd hit and killed a homeless man with his car without knowing it. Toni Mirosevich read a sweet little tale of pumping gas and loneliness. Monologuist Josh Kornbluth talked politics. Describing himself as a "passive-ist," he said he hoped this nation has "a soupçon of democracy remaining, as they say at Chez Panisse." Not to harp on Ted Rall's fun-hater cartoon, as previously mentioned, but I was again amused by his prescience when Persis Karim actually read a poem about her nanny's children. Then things took a darker turn when Micheline Aharonian Marcom followed up with an absolutely bone-chilling section of her soon-to-be-released novel Draining The Sea: a horrifically graphic love letter from a torturer to the woman that he is grueseomely killing. Alejandro Murguia read about a little boy selling flowers from a bucket in the Mission. He offered to show everyone some knife tricks after the reading. Holly Shumas read a piece of her novel in progress that takes place during the Litquake Litcrawl. The event began running self-referential laps around itself at that moment.
Monday: Polish Punks, Kitchen Gloves, and the Gay Jimmy Carter
Monday night at the Swedish-American Hall, the sold-out crowd nearly wraps around the block. The theme of Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte's Porchlight Storytelling Series was I'd Prefer Not To: Writers Talk about Day Job Hell. Due to the sheer number of readers, they had to tell shorter stories than usual -- a theme carried through the rest of the week. King Dork author Frank Portman told a tour story from his days in the punk band The Mr. T Experience. Jack Boulware discussed buying a car in the 1980s for a bank president known as "the gay Jimmy Carter." Alvin Orloff won the prize, in my mind, for worst job on offer. As the "Boy In a Box," a short-lived feature of a male strip show, Alvin endured fondling by strangers wearing yellow rubber kitchen gloves. Cameron Tuttle (gun-shy after once being sued for copyright infrigement, she told me later) insisted that she'd never ever had a bad job experience, and her tale of working for a horrifically manipulative TV producer was simply "a dream" with no parallels whatsoever to her experience as a writer for a recent failed sitcom pilot based on her books.
Thursday: Ex-Boozers, Fit-Cruisers, Scotsmen, and U2
My favorite event of the week took place in the spiritual home of the festival: the Edinburgh Castle. I feared I'd be run out of there on a caber, after my lukewarm reception of Irvine Welsh's last book, but I needn't have worried. I was, literally, warmly embraced. I shared a table with Stephen Elliott and Caroline Paul. Bucky Sinister told us his next book, about his drug addiction and recovery, is due at the publisher in three months. That publisher is Redwheel/Weiser, better known for titles like A Witch's Guide to Psychic Healing. I expressed my surprise. The massive success of Dharma Punx author Noah Levine has changed the whole new-age market, Bucky explained. So now, every new age publisher wants to sign their own big tough guy with lots of tattoos to write a recovery book, I ask? "EXACTLY!" he says. He's happy with Redwheel/Weiser. "As long as they don't put, like, a river on the cover."
Bob Calhoun, aka Count Dante, read from his memoir Beer, Blood and Cornmeal, about his years in Incredibly Strange Wrestling. He also shouted some bit of doggerel about OJ Simpson. Ginger Murray, editor of Whore! magazine (or "whooarrrrr magazine," which is how the very Scottish bar manager Alan Black says it), read a forgettable story in an incredibly sexy, smoky voice. After she uttered the phrase "Drunk with power I was," Stephen Elliott leaned in and said, "I've just coined a new term. Pulling a Yoda. You use it in a writing workshop when somebody writes a horrible sentence like 'drunk with power I was.'" Beth Lisick read from Helping Me Help Myself, her soon-to-be-released nonfiction book about attending self-help seminars of various types. The section she read was from her week on a Richard Simmons fitness cruise. It was even more horrific than you're imagining right now. Peter Plate, ever the rabble rouser, began his "recitation" with a little agitprop. "if not us, then NO ONE! If not now, then NEVER!" he called out. Then he recited, from memory, a chapter from his latest novel. He kept his mirrored shades on, and I wondered, does he write crib notes on the inside of the lenses? He didn't stumble once, not even on the words "dumpster behind the federal building," when a patron's pet dalmation began barking. Afterwards, back at our table, he pronounces his performance merely "average." Bucky, Katherine McWilliams, and Luke James read one after the other, and all three of them mention the band U2.
Friday: Ventriloquist Dummies, Basketball, and a Little Too Much Free Gin
Friday (are you exhausted yet? I've left out about half of the readers I saw and this article is already too long) was another lineup around the block outside the Swedish-American Hall for Opium's Literary Deathmatch, an event which, thanks to one impolitic word and one tossed beer, became instantly infamous. Why bother? I asked Stephen Elliott the day after the beer-throwing incident. Why waste the energy to throw a drink on someone who you already thought was a jerk? "Now he's a jerk with beer on him," was his satisfied response. Okay then. Event cohost and Opium co-publisher Todd Zuniga is built like a Thin White Duke-era David Bowie. He kept changing his tie. The event was sponsored by a gin company who was plying the crowd with free drinks, and it showed. During Wesley Stace's reading, which featured a scary ventriloquist dummy seated on a stool downstage, a very, very (VERY!!) drunk woman in the row behind mine stood up and started shouting things at him. We all thought she was a ringer. Only when she had nothing interesting to say did we realize she was merely soused. Jane Ganahl used her best mom-of-a-teenage-daughter voice to get her to shut up and sit down. Rumor has it that the drunk shrieker is an attorney. (I reeeally hope this is true.) The best part of the incident was the next line of Stace's story: "Nothing distracted him from his work." The crowd went wild. Daniel Handler, reading about a boy in a locker room from his novel Adverbs, won the Deathmatch after trouncing Stace in a game of Horse with nerf basketballs.
Saturday:Soviet Dogs, Donut Trucks, and Yours Truly
Then came the granddaddy of all Litquake events, the Satuday night Litcrawl. Phase One: At Adobe books, some good looking young authors and one upstart hack read from their works. It was too crowded to even turn around.
Phase Two, we try and fail to shove our way into the Elbo Room to see the small press fest, and head instead for the Mission Playground. We get there just in time to hear Caroline Paul read a devastating piece about the sad end of Laika, the soviet space dog. Poet and greek translator Willis Barnstone read some dog-inspired poetry. Five minutes previous, he had lifted a derelict woman off the pavement where she had fallen. Phase Three: we try and fail to shove our way in to the Marsh Cafe to see the poets of SPD, and thus migrate over to the Latin American Club, where we finally manage to elbow our way inside in time for the final performance. Jaime Cortez read a piece about a group of little Latino kids who have a near-religious encounter with a mobile donut-selling van. It is sweet, hilarious, uplifting, devastating, gripping, everything you hope to encounter at a literary event but almost never do. We gasp and hiss and cheer at all the right moments, and then before we know it, it's all over.
Riding on a wave of goodwill, I hit the afterparty, upstairs at the Elbo Room. It is exceedingly loud, the crowd at the bar is three deep. Andrew Sean Greer and Daniel Handler tear it up on the dancefloor. I notice Daniel is still wearing his Literary Deathmatch champion medal. "Doris Lessing won the Nobel and it just FIRED ME UP!" he yells. A big screen runs a loop of powerpoint slides, some of which were photos that had been taken mere hours before. The event ran a final lap around itself, like a dog that's finally managed to catch its own tail. Dave Eggers shouted pleasantries through the din. Count Dante, wearing the same massive fringed buckskin jacket he'd worn on Thursday, tried to give me the same flyer about his book that he'd given me twice before. A guy with a linguistics PhD states that he doesn't dance, on principle. I decide it's time to go and several authors, slick with dance-sweat, give me damp goodbye hugs. On the way out the door, I am given a tiny box containing two truffles. I give one to the volunteer gamely manning the door, she wishes me a good evening, and I stagger out into the warmish Mission night, in desperate need of sleep.