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.
–Donald Barthelme, Overnight to Many Distant Cities
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.
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.