SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 18, 2010

Neanderthal

 

Back in December, I was approached by a fellow who ran a monthly reading series on the Lower East Side. He asked if I would be interested in taking part at some point in the near future. I said no, I wouldn’t. It wasn’t arrogance—it’s just that traditional “public readings” are simply no longer feasible for me. The last few I tried were painful and sloppy affairs. No more for me, thanks. Then he asked if I would be interested in giving a reading that wasn’t exactly a reading. I asked him to explain what the hell he meant by that, fully expecting to say “no” again. But when he was finished, the Animal Farm reading series he ran sounded kind of interesting. At heart, it was a satire of a reading series. They had people reading satirical pieces, and other people doing things that poked fun at the form.

            I told him I’d think about it, but that I wouldn’t be able to do anything until April at the earliest, given all the nonsense I was facing in the coming months. He agreed and went away. I promptly forgot about it, hoping I’d pushed things far enough in the future that he’d forget about it, too.

            Well, I knew he wouldn’t really, and he didn’t. He contacted me in mid-March to remind me that I’d been penciled in for Thursday, April eighth. At that stage I could see the end of the tunnel so far as my own work was concerned, and would have felt bad (sort of) leaving him in the lurch like that. So we agreed. Then I asked him if anyone else would be reading that night. Big mistake, because that’s when I learned that I was opening for Robert Coover, one of the grand old men of postmodern metafiction. I’m generally not a fan of that particular genre, but that wasn’t the problem. Coover was okay—he’s a brilliant writer who, blessedly, was also funny as hell. The problem was that in the world of Contemporary Quality Lit, he’s huge—on a par with John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, even Pynchon. That meant he’d attract a big crowd. Worse still, he’d attract a big crowd of hoity-toity academics and comp lit grad students. And that meant that I’d be in the position of playing the only Neanderthal in the room again.

            Trying to shove all that out of my head, I started putting together a reading that involved no reading—which when you get right down to it is just a fancy way of saying “telling a story.” For the next month I honed and rehearsed. I ran through it while riding the train and walking to the post office. I worked out the timing, the inflection, got it down to a straight twenty minutes. I practiced until I was bored to death with it, praying I’d never have to actually give it in front of people. As I feared, however, the day of the event eventually arrived. I was queasy and tense as usual when it comes to these things, but Morgan and I had a quick dinner and headed down toward Broome Street. The reading was taking place in an old Chinese massage parlor called Happy Endings that has since been converted into a nightclub. Somehow it seemed appropriate.

There was awful New Wave music blasting when we arrived, and the interior design, as Morgan described it to me, came from somewhere in that vortex where Stanley Kubrick and Hell come together. Amplifying the effect was the fact that the reading was supposed to start at eight, but by seven forty-five, we were still the only two people in the joint apart from the bartender.

            “I think this really is hell,” I said. “I think those cars hit us when we were trying to cross Delancey.”

The awful New Wave music (which, upon closer listening, sounded like Albanian New Wave) was still blasting as we sat alone at a low table on unbalanced stools. There was no draught beer, so we were drinking bottles of Heineken as Morgan perused the endless list of fancy drinks with names like “Grapefruit Splurt,” “Rub and Tug” and “Four Hands.” Which only confirmed the fact that this used to be a massage parlor, and convinced me it might be wise to stay away from the fancy drinks.

            As we sat there, it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t Hell. If it really was Hell, I figured, there was no way we’d be left alone like this; there would be other people to contend with, and lots of them. As if on cue, sure enough, shortly before eight a few other damned souls began to wander in. Then a few more. Most seemed confused and alienated and lost.

            The intense fellow who ran the show, a comp lit grad student, introduced himself and gave me a brief thumbnail sketch of how things would work that night.

            “You have something ready?” he asked.

            “I think so.”

            “So . . . you just gonna ad-lib or what?”

            “I have something,” I assured him, ashamed to admit that I had spent so much time rehearsing. He ran off to make more preparations, and I gratefully sat back down on my low, wobbly stool and kept drinking.

            There was no stage—just a microphone, a podium, and a spotlight cutting through the otherwise impenetrably dark former massage parlor. At about quarter after eight the intense grad student opened the show with a long passage from Coover’s novel, The Public Burning. Unbeknownst to me, Mr. Coover’s wife and publisher had since sat down at the table with me and Morgan, while Mr. Coover himself had been cornered by one of those obsessive fans who began emptying a duffle bag, pulling out everything Coover had published in his forty-five-year long career, apparently expecting him to sign every last book.

Up at the podium, two young women were reading short, unflattering reports about a couple of other recent readings around town. Then it was my turn.

            Morgan led me to the podium and told me exactly where the microphone was, and returned to her seat. Once she did, I promptly took a step to the right away from the microphone, and launched into my well-prepared spiel. Of course only those people standing right in front of the podium could hear what the hell I was saying, and only a tiny percentage of those people got even the merest chuckle out of my assorted jibes and antics. This is what you get when you set a Neanderthal loose in a roomful of sophisticates. Even if, from my perspective, my timing was good and I remembered all my lines, I still returned to my seat and my beer afterward feeling once again like a dumbass. I simply shouldn’t do these things.

            After a short break, Mr. Coover—who is currently in his late seventies—got up and read some truly astonishing and hilarious passages from his new novel, Noir. It was a great reading, and he was an extremely classy man. I wondered what he thought about reading in a hip nightclub that used to be a massage parlor.

            When he was finished, Morgan and I moved to the bar. One of the best things about being part of a reading with someone of his stature is that afterward everyone clustered around him , leaving me free to wash away the memory and calm down.

            We hung around for another couple of beers , then got ourselves together and headed out. Before leaving, though, we stopped by Mr. Coover and his wife, and I had a chance to shake both their hands and tell them how much I enjoyed the reading (his part of it anyway). We chatted for a few minutes about blindness and technology and a painter he knows, but then he had to get back to the growing line of people waiting to get their books signed. He was a swell guy, and his wife was a delight.

Morgan grabbed a few books of matches and we headed out onto the empty streets, past the fish-packing plant, and eventually found ourselves at another bar, where things finally started feeling normal again.

 

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