This isn't the best day to begin my stint as guest blogger at Powell's. After last night's binge — Xanax, a few IPAs, numerous cans of PBR, a jar of something alcoholic called Ginger Love, and several progressively stronger borrowed cigarettes (I don't normally smoke) — the writing promises to be foggy. But as they say in show biz (see, my writing brain isn't functional, so I'm going with cliché), the show must go on.
The reason for this binge drinking was that last night was the culmination of my book tour, and, to celebrate it, I put on an event at Dante's Inferno called Literary Gong Show. I was the host of the event and had dressed myself in a tuxedo and a floppy-collared, bright-yellow, pleated tuxedo shirt that I unbuttoned to the navel. This was intended as an impersonation of Chuck Barris, the '70s TV host who hosted the actual Gong Show, but I think I just looked like an aging writer in a cheap, untailored tuxedo who didn't know to button his shirt and couldn't afford a bow tie.
The Gong Show event was the end of a string of such events. At Powell's Books, I orchestrated a Voodoo Doughnut Ring Toss. In San Francisco, I ran a game of Jeopardy. In Santa Fe, it was a Portlandia episode. Sometimes I simply read, but at odd venues: Voodoo Doughnuts, Stumptown Coffee, the Independent Publishing Resource Center.At one point I found myself on top of a safe, sandwiched between an Elvira pinball machine and a vintage photo booth, reading to a crowd of people turned the other direction as they waited to order their Triple Chocolate Penetrations.
If all this sounds overdone, you're right, it was. My novel is about a shy guy who wrote a zine about a self-styled preacher. The preacher stood up on milk crates and gave ridiculous sermons and was ridiculed by his audience. But something else was happening in the story, too. The shy guy in the story watches the preacher and wishes that he were just as brave.
So, what I decided to do on my book tour was to be brave. I don't know if I sold more books because of it. Most of the presentations were to tiny audiences. It's entirely possible that all the stunts turned people off, and I sold less copies of the book. But the point was to live out the spirit of the novel, to take myself completely out of my comfort zone and see what happened.
And what did happen? I'm not entirely sure yet. Some things worked, some things didn't. I'm at my best when I'm being genuine and sincere and reading my material straight up to an audience that wants to listen. Chaos confuses me. Last night, after two hours of writers heckling each other — the gong going off, the writing mashed and mucked up — I got up on the stage to read a chapter of my book, the scene that had taken place right there at Dante's Inferno.
It was a bad idea.
By the time I started reading, hordes of 20-somethings were pouring in the door. They'd gone to the Timbers game, and now they were in Dante's for the Sinferno event —they wanted to watch thin, tattooed women writhe on the stage and dancers twirling fire sticks. They did not want to watch an aging 40-year-old in a tuxedo and an unbuttoned shirt reading from his novel.
I was sweating buckets at this point. I could hear them chatting with each other, ignoring the stage. Some guy yelled "get a hook." I tried to find some way to end with humor, to wrap it up, but I just couldn't weave my way through to an appropriate end. I finally just stopped mid-reading, thanked everybody for coming, and slunk my way off the stage.
But as I walked off, surrounded by a throng of indifference, I chuckled to myself. In the scene in the novel at Dante's, my main character, trying so hard to get across a message he carried so deeply inside, had been gonged off the stage, and here I was at Dante's experiencing the same thing. It couldn't have been a more perfect ending to the book tour, really.
The novelist Pauls Toutonghi wrote an introduction for himself for the Gong Show last night. Pauls is an eloquent writer on the page, but his biography was purposefully simple. "Pauls Toutonghi is sick and tired of all this shit. He's just a hard-working writer and a family man, who likes to settle down at night with a drink or two."
As I walked out of Dante's, outstaged by tassled tits and tattooed firedancers, Pauls's bio reminded me of the truth of being a writer. The joy is in producing beautiful work. The most likely response to that work is indifference. But does that really matter? Especially when we'd rather be sitting at home on a lounge chair, a book in hand, settling down with a drink.
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James Bernard Frost is the author of the novels World Leader Pretend and A Very Minor Prophet, and the award-winning travel guide The Artichoke Trail. He lives in Oregon with the author Kerry Cohen, their four children, the rain, the freaks, and the trees. His bike is currently in disrepair.
Books mentioned in this post
James Bernard Frost is the author of A Very Minor Prophet