Overnight to Many Distant Cities

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A group of Chi­nese in brown jack­ets pre­ceded us through the halls of Ver­sailles. They were middle-aged men, weighty, obvi­ously impor­tant, per­haps thirty of them. At the entrance to each room a guard stopped us, held us back until the Chi­nese had fin­ished inspect­ing it. A fleet of black gov­ern­ment Cit­roens had brought them, they were very much at ease with Ver­sailles and with each other, it was clear that they were being rewarded for many years of good behavior.

Asked her opin­ion of Ver­sailles, my daugh­ter said she thought it was overdecorated.

Well, yes.

–Don­ald Barthelme, Overnight to Many Dis­tant Cities

Some­times it seems like we just go round and round.

Post­ing this at the end of my Ladies and Gen­tle­men tour, though it’s not really The End. I’ll be sign­ing books at East Hamp­ton Library’s Author’s Night, August 13, then appear­ing at the AJC Decatur Book Fes­ti­val with Blake But­ler and Jesse Ball on Labor Day week­end. I’ve hit ten cities in the last three weeks, and since I can’t nar­rate it all, I thought I’d do a blog post in pictures.

I kicked things off in Nashville at the Salon 615 series. I had 500 peo­ple show up and we ran out of books. No, wait, that was Ann Patchett’s read­ing the week before. I had 10,000 peo­ple show up and was inter­viewed on stage by the city’s great­est writer, Jim Rid­ley. U2, who was also in town, let us shift the venue to Vanderbilt’s foot­ball sta­dium. It’s truly incred­i­ble, the logis­tics that go into a nation­wide tour for a short story col­lec­tion, but as every­one knows, these days the only way authors can make money on their books is by performing.

Next stop, San Francisco’s leg­endary City Lights book­store. On the flight out, I changed planes in Salt Lake City (there really is a Salt Lake), with a notable descent over marsh­land so bar­ren and untouched it looked Juras­sic. From my win­dow, white birds vis­i­ble below, their wing spans so wide that even from five thou­sand feet I thought they might be pre­his­toric, these flocks fly­ing in arrow-headed squadrons that changed from ^’s to 7’s and back, their shad­ows dip­ping and ris­ing in what appeared a fren­zied effort to break free of the bod­ies cast­ing them like fish fight­ing below a boat’s fixed hull. Utah’s moun­tain­tops were still dusted with snow, a fact which would seem impos­si­ble given the weather the fol­low­ing week, but I get ahead of myself.

At City Lights, I read “In the Base­ment” in its entirety (only two peo­ple fell asleep) and then got drunk with friends at Tosca after­ward, the appear­ance at the for­mer a check-off on this writer’s bucket list. Ate oys­ters at the Ferry Building’s Hog Island. Had a soft shell crab BLT at Boule­vard. Spent a glo­ri­ous after­noon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  Gave a read­ing at Book Pas­sage. Heard a genius. A group of ele­men­tary school stu­dents were read­ing sto­ries about “the per­fect moment,” and this girl read about sit­ting with her fam­ily at din­ner, and it was so arrest­ing and vivid—it was broad­cast over the PA—everyone in the book­store stopped in their tracks, I swear. The moral: Go see authors read their work aloud. It’s cheaper than a movie. Plus you sup­port your local inde­pen­dent bookstore.

To Seat­tle, where I’d never been before, for a read­ing at Elliot Bay, another leg­endary site, its new loca­tion in a very gay grunge hip part of town. The weather, I’m told, was unusu­ally ter­rific, as was San Francisco’s, by the way, and when you visit either city under sunny, ultra­ma­rine skies, I defy you not to think you should be liv­ing there. Tooled around the waterfront’s sculp­ture gar­den, Puget Sound absurdly beau­ti­ful and hats off to God for the won­der of the Cas­cades. Love me some Calder, who can, like Calvino, sub­tract weight from giant struc­tures. Another piece allowed you to see the wind. Home for a lit­tle over twelve hours, then hopped into the car and drove to Memphis—this began my tour’s 2000-mile dri­ving leg—where I once again had the plea­sure of appear­ing on Stephen Usery’s Book Talk (last year it was for Mr. Peanut). This is a dude who is right up there with Terry Gross or Dick Cavett, so far as I’m con­cerned, and our talked ranged from Nazi pro­pa­ganda (Elsa, She-Wolf of the SS) to the Nadal/Djokovic rivalry to whether or not Brad Pitt’s accent in Tarantino’s Inglo­ri­ous Bas­terds is pure Knoxville or Ozarks. Also squeezed in a few plugs for Ladies and Gen­tle­men. Mr. Usery might stay a lit­tle more focused on my book if I were as cute and tal­ented as Amy Greene (the man loves him some Blood­root, and who can blame him?).  I don’t know if this ended up on the cut­ting room floor, but Usery’s col­lege nick­names were Chunk Style and Simian Steve the Prime Pri­mate, though I will call him P2 from here on out.

Read at the Book­sellers of Lau­rel­wood, the for­mer Davis Kidd, which I’m happy to report sur­vived Joseph Beth’s restruc­tur­ing, a verb only the Pen­ta­gon could invent. Still, there are scars. Three audi­ence mem­bers had just read Mr. Peanut in their book club and had ter­rific ques­tions and it’s nice to see fans with the paper­back in hand. Heat index was 116, by the way; I nearly died on my morn­ing run along The River­walk. This weather sys­tem fol­lowed me on my trav­els for the next two weeks. How do you like your global warm­ing now, Mr. Death?

To Oxford, MS, one of the great small towns on the planet. Two lunches at Ajax (shrimp and oys­ter po’ boys) and that same gor­geous wait­ress every time I eat there. She took care of me while I watched the US women rally against France in the World Cup semi­fi­nal. Read at Off Square Books. Din­ner at City Gro­cery. Slept at own­ers Richard and Lisa Howorth’s house (that’s Richard, who asked that his iden­tity not be revealed, by the way). The pic­ture of naked guy, to the left, reminded me of The Judge, the Niet­zsche Over­man in Cor­mac McCarthy’s remark­able novel Blood Merid­ian. Put down your PDA and go read that book. Get a great one under your belt. Turn off Face­book, dis­able Twit­ter. What are you look­ing for? An aside: I’m between sev­eral books right now and they’re all good. Jane Smiley’s Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at the Novel; Dominic Sandbrook’s Mad as Hell: The Cri­sis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Pop­ulist Right; Devra Davis’s Dis­con­nect, about cell phone radi­a­tion; and finally James Salter’s Dusk. Salter *sigh* I just re-read “Amer­i­can Express.” Dude’s on a per­ma­nent date with Alice Munro as the liv­ing breath­ing great­est short story writer. They’ll have eter­nal din­ners in heaven with Chekhov, Colette, and their cousin, Isaac Babel, AND TODD BURPO, of course. Here are sam­ples from Salter’s “Amer­i­can Express”:

She turned. She had pure fea­tures and her face was with­out expres­sion, as if a bird had turned to look, a bird which might sud­denly fly away.


He smiled. When he was drink­ing he was strangely calm. In Lugano in the park that time a bird had sat on his shoe.


Some­thing was miss­ing in him and women had always done any­thing to find out what it was. They always would. Per­haps it was sim­pler, Alan thought. Per­haps noth­ing was missing.

Any ques­tions?

Where was I? Ah. To Green­wood, MS, for a stop at Turn Row books. I include this pic­ture from last year’s appear­ance. That’s me with pecan and cot­ton farmer Will Long. When I read from Mr. Peanut in 2011—a selec­tion that ended with Dr. Shep­pard and Susan Hayes hav­ing hot sex in the former’s car, Long asked, “You still got that MG?” Price­less. I’m sorry to say he passed away last year. We cel­e­brate his brief time on this pollution-choked, debt-ridden, war-torn, gun-crazy (Oslo!) planet with a thank you from all authors who had the plea­sure of meet­ing him. Accord­ing to Jamie and Kelly Korne­gay, Turn Row’s own­ers, he was a reg­u­lar at author read­ings, mean­ing he under­stood life’s sim­pler joys. For the read­ing, gor­geous owner Kelly Korne­gay had made a con­coc­tion called Panty Drop­pers with fresh peaches. I haven’t read that drunk since my appear­ance at New York’s Barnes & Noble last year. Nobody dropped trousers or panties, I’m afraid. Still, they were delicious.

Due south to Jack­son, MS, home of Lemuria Book­store, another remark­able joint, then a 230-mile drive north­east to Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, for a sign­ing at Jake Reiss’s Alabama Book­smith, fol­lowed by a guest appear­ance at the Birm­ing­ham Lit­er­acy Council’s fundraiser, a great event for a great cause. Here’s a sam­ple from Jane Smiley’s Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at the Novel:

The source of Kafka’s appeal, for exam­ple, is that cer­tain expe­ri­ences that oth­ers sense vaguely or por­tray in pass­ing, such as the expe­ri­ence of feel­ing a com­pul­sion to work at one’s given task (“The Bur­row”), or the expe­ri­ence of being mys­te­ri­ously sin­gled out and per­se­cuted by the imper­sonal state (The Trial), or the expe­ri­ence of sud­den, unwel­come trans­for­ma­tion (“The Meta­mor­pho­sis”) Kafka depicts purely and intensely, with­out adding inter­pre­ta­tion or con­text. The being of his pro­tag­o­nists is felt entirely through these imposed neces­si­ties, and thereby intensified.

True, there are lit­er­ary reflec­tions like this in Thor but why not go buy the book?

Speak­ing of books, I’ve done mul­ti­ple pieces in the run-up to Ladies and Gentlemen’s pub­li­ca­tion about What I’m Read­ing or Rec­om­mend­ing. Here’s one for Barnes & Noble, another for The Wall Street Jour­nal, yet another for the Daily Beast and, finally, a fun one for the panty-throwing Book Lady’s blog.

We con­tinue: A twelve-hour lay­over in Nashville fol­lowed by the 900-mile drive to Man­hat­tan. Broke this up into two days with a stop in Roanoke, the journey’s mid­point, to see my for­mer men­tor, Richard Dil­lard, who is still going strong and will be teach­ing Hitch­cock at Hollins Uni­ver­sity next semes­ter, a class that should be open to the pub­lic. Up early and on the road, the New York City sky­line in view by mid-afternoon. Man­hat­tan was a whirl­wind, mean­while. Did a radio appear­ance on WNYC with Leonard Lopate as well as an inter­view with the great Sam Tanen­haus for the New York Times Book Review’s pod­cast. Here’s the accom­pa­ny­ing review. Had the honor and plea­sure of read­ing at Brooklyn’s fan­tas­tic store, Book­court, as well as New York’s Strand (bucket list check). Book­court wins the air-conditioning com­pe­ti­tion. No one saw me sweat. Book­court is A TREASURE. Was asked about the win­ner of men’s sin­gles in U.S. Open. Begrudg­ingly picked Djokovic, with Fed­erer as my num­ber two. The weather didn’t break until Sun­day, but by then I’d already lost five pounds in water weight at East Hampton’s Bookhamp­ton. Note to self: Never fol­low Starr Jones.

More soon.