Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation — a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft.
“Ah, Mr Genç, I am so sorry for you,” the student affairs woman said with a genuine feeling in her voice, “but there is nothing I can do.”
There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand.
The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead.
Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of.
“I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face.
“Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!”
I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane.
It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers.
“Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.”
I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos.
But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret.
There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker.
As I tried to come up with intelligent-sounding solutions to the problems of the Turkish military, I began to feel like Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts — of course there was no way to charge each commander five cents for my services but if I did I would surely be a rich man now.
So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics’ qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.)
How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread.
Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper — a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books.
Image Courtesy of the Author.
Until the day the golfer spotted a dismembered head in the cool waters of Stony Brook, the scariest beast in Hopewell was the New Jersey Devil. As elementary school students, we were shown videos of the Devil rampaging flocks of sheep and terrorizing farmers in the Pine Barrens. This was frightening, to be sure, but the Pine Barrens were several hours by car southeast of Hopewell (pop. 2200) and the videos never showed the Devil’s face owing to budgeting constraints, as the filmmakers could not afford any special effects. Plus we had a professional hockey team named after him — the Devils — and they were an inspiration to young children, not a menace.
I remember receiving the news about the head late one night in a house in the Sourland Mountains in 1989. My friend George and I were locked in a fierce battle of Nintendo Ice Hockey, the chief variables of the game being to decide whether to choose a slow, plump player, who could shoot the puck hard and check anything in his path; a skinny player who was extremely lithe but who had a weak shot and could be easily bumped off his skates; or a medium-sized player who was a compromise between the other two body types. It was an addictive formula, and one that Nintendo continues to exploit in its games today. Anyway, we were engrossed in this battle when George’s parents mounted the stairs and solemnly told us that a severed head had been found in a creek by the Hopewell Valley Golf Club, and added that they had locked the doors and we’d been up late enough playing-your-games-and-you-should-get-some-sleep.
We did not sleep that night, of course. The thought of a head without its body was something that had never occurred to us, and we were old enough, about 10, to know that someone had killed this body before lopping off its head. We consoled ourselves, as our world views splintered and cracked, by watching The Ultimate Warrior thrash his opponents on the World Wrestling Federation until the sun pried open our dreary eyelids.
The local news followed the story of the severed head closely, and blood tests eventually revealed that it contained the AIDS virus. In 1989, AIDS was associated with two things, gays and blacks, and we believed you could contract it by cutting your head on metal and that the symptom was a long white hair on your tongue and throat. This only compounded our sense of terror: a dismembered head with a misunderstood virus.
The place where the head had been found was more bizarre, the seventh hole of an idyllic golf club. My family didn’t belong to the club, but I had been there with friends to swim in the pool, which had a deep-end colored a malevolent blue, so bottomless were its waters, and lifeguards that sneered as they twirled their whistles around their fingers. In my memories, the swimming pool is always sun-dappled and solar flared — enough to please J.J. Abrams — because we only went swimming on sunny days. Hopewell was a small town, and safe and complacent with its five churches, its family-owned deli, sport hunting shop, and pharmacy. It had once been a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan, and before that a scene of fierce resistance during the Revolutionary War. Charles Lindbergh’s baby had been kidnapped from a second story window, and then discarded in the woods just outside town, but by the late 1980s Hopewell had become a desirable backwater with its ample green spaces, acres of woods, pristine creeks, Harvest Festival, and Memorial Day parade, where kids of all colors could roam freely without fear. We would ride our Huffies and Schwinns by the golf course, right over the spot where Stony Brook, the stream in which the head had been found, dipped beneath the road.
As time went on, and the head was never claimed, rumors began to circulate, and always seemed to end in one of two possibilities: the Mafia or a serial killer had done it. Serial killers were, of course, far scarier to a 10 year old than the Mafia. Unlike the Mafia, which (television had us believe) followed a moral code, serial killers were imbued with their own unique compass. As a kid, my main concern was to find out how many other killers were out there, because that would promote my survival. My parents reassured me that we were safe — what else could you say to a child about such a thing? — and I would believe them until the sun went down and our home filled with shadows. But there were deeper questions, too: Why hadn’t anyone noticed that a head was missing? Wasn’t the family looking for the head? The thought that no family member cared enough about this person’s head to claim it back was even more terrifying. If your family can’t search for your missing head, then what good are they, in the end?
Most of my questions about the head were fed by what my parents called “an active imagination,” but in hindsight the threats were never were too far away. While vacationing at my grandparents’ cabin in Wisconsin, my mom hid an ax under the bed because the bodies of slaughtered children had been turning up in the woods, before Jeffrey Dahmer had been caught; my best friend in Hopewell had once lived in Arkansas down the street from the mother of John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who had apparently visited her regularly as my friend rode his bigwheel tricycle down the street.
Much later, working with asylum seekers in South Africa, I regularly met men and women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled war-torn areas where roving militias dismembered the bodies of civilian victims. The difference was that the practice was fed by a heady mix of psychotropic drugs, psychological warfare, and perverted interpretations of animist traditions. The scale of such murders was terrifying, but there were reasons in place. It was war and the militias feared the spirits of their victims. There was a certain logic.
As a Nigerian-American, I’ve also become accustomed to a few stereotypes, most of which revolve around Nigerian email scams, but also the selling of body parts. Not just internal organs, but arms, legs, feet, little fingers. (Just watch the South African film District 9, and you’ll see Nigerians who get off on dismembering people and also having sex with aliens from outerspace.) But again, there is a sort of reasoning to that illicit traffic. The bodies for these occult rituals are sliced apart for spiritual purposes, not as ends unto themselves.
Last week, after a 24-year search for more information about the head, the New Jersey State Police finally discovered the identity of the victim. She was a prostitute who had changed her name no less than 15 times, and she was identified by DNA tests that matched her with her aunt, who had filed a missing persons report with the police in 2001. Her name was Heidi Balch. She is believed to have been the first victim killed by Joel Rifkin, who confessed to murdering someone with the name of one of her aliases in 1993, and who had been sentenced to 200 years in prison after killing 17 prostitutes on a rampage. Rifkin claimed to have begun murdering prostitutes because he had contracted AIDS from one.
The HIV virus was the main character of South African author Kgebetli Moele’s 2009 novel The Book of the Dead, and the protagonist moved from victim to victim boasting of its conquests. It was not Moele’s best book — that would be Room 207, a must read — but it was chilling to read how the virus thrived on intimacy and broken relationships. Revenge was never the point of the virus in that story: it lived only for the sake of living. Rifkin, by contrast, claimed to be butchering for revenge and not for pleasure. In this, the fictional virus holds the moral upperhand, for it doesn’t pretend to be serving some larger purpose.
Like science fiction, serial killers twist our values on their head and allow us to reflect back on ourselves — What would happen if our planet had two suns instead of one? Or if we communicated through telepathy? — and, in the case of serial killers — what if you didn’t care if you killed someone? Or took pleasure in the killing? Serial killers are big business. Their psychological profiles and crafty, nefarious plotting can be patiently examined in a television series like Dexter or Bates Motel and people will watch them.
Only after I read the news about the discovery did I realize how long I had suppressed even thinking about the murder. For two decades, I now realized, I had been holding my breath as we drove along the road past the golf course; and all that time the head loomed spectral and ghoulish in the crenellations of my mind.
The New Jersey State Police managed to trace Heidi Balch’s identity by searching records of prostitution offenses at the time. If my consciousness was first shattered in 1989 when they found the head, it was this fact that shattered it again. Heidi Balch was killed because she had been pushed, by will or by circumstance, to the margins of our society to the extent that her very livelihood was a criminal act. Rifkin, Dahmer, and Gacy preyed on the weak and marginalized. It’s hard to imagine a sober conversation about legalizing prostitution in America today or empowering sex workers with rights, especially when abortion laws are becoming still more restrictive. Heidi Balch was unclaimed and nameless for 24 years. Now we know her name, but if she were alive today what would prevent us from forgetting her again?
Image Credit: Weekly World News, May 23, 1989.
The first time I attended AWP — the annual conference of creative writing programs, literary magazines, pale-skinned mole people (here on out referred to colloquially as “writers”), and, at least this year, a surprising number of people who appeared to have been left over from a plushy convention — it was by accident. It was 2001 and the conference was being held in Palm Springs, my hometown, at a hotel where as a teenager in the 1980s I’d worked by the pool handing out towels and stealing things, and which also hosted my high school’s Senior Prom (theme: Forever Young) and Career Day (theme: Why The Military Might Be a Good Option!). A friend of mine was presenting at the conference, so I figured what the hell, I’d pop in. There was a book fair in the Grand Ballroom — where I’d drunkenly slow-danced to “Eternal Flame” and where I learned about how I might make a damn fine Marine — but by the time I got there, it was half-filled with a bunch of tables representing literary magazines and universities and maybe 200 people were milling about. It had rained earlier in the day and everyone was complaining about that and the small earthquake that had hit. An earthquake in California. Who could imagine?
I hadn’t registered for the conference, because I didn’t know what the hell it was, and because I was just meeting my friend, but no one seemed to notice or care, so I milled around the ballroom until I got bored, which happened swiftly, and then slipped into a mostly empty conference room where people were discussing the latest tech innovations in the literary world, which at the time basically meant people were talking about Webdelsol.com. Eventually I wandered out to the pool area, partially in vain hope of running into my old boss, a gentleman named Tan Man who’d skipped town owing me $167 in suntan lotion sales commission 15 years earlier, and partially to avoid talking any further to a woman who kept trying to get me to buy her chapbook of poetry, and found it completely empty. I went back to the conference center, located the spot where I’d thrown up an entire strawberry wine cooler on a painting some years previous, located my friend and then learned that there was some kind of dance that night and that I could attend if I wanted to. I was informed of the following things: There would be dancing poets. They would likely play “It Takes Two” by Rob Base. A literary lion would end up having regrettable sex with someone half their age.
I opted to go home.
This year, the conference was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, a complex that apparently was designed to remind people of what it might be like if a SuperMax prison and a Chico’s had a baby, and the book fair was held in three cavernous exhibit halls which were packed, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, with well over 10,000 people. There were something like 932 different panels — my favorites: “P.U.P: Poets in Unexpected Places,” which truly is filled with possibilities, but which usually ends up with “not in bed with an undergrad,” and the oddly specific “1963: 50 Years Later”– and there was no wandering into anything if you were unregistered, not with the phalanx of stone-faced security goons who stood guard over the entrances to everything checking lanyards. No roaming bands of thugs were going to walk out of the book fair with a stack of back issues of Brain, Child. Not with their teeth still in their mouth, anyway.
I had a booth at the conference this year, as I have for the last several years, promoting the graduate school in creative writing I’m in charge of, which gave me an excellent chance to interact with the masses. (I also was forced to attend several off-site events with said masses, because once you become a professional writer, and then all of your friends become writers, you’re expected to both give readings and attend other people’s readings, even though not a single person over the age of five likes to be read to for more than about four minutes, and even then it’s a fucking stretch, but the social convention of being a writer suggests that we all are supposed to like these fucking things, and so we all go, and we all complain, and we all text while people are reading, even the people we like, but mostly when the people we don’t know start to read their bad mother poetry [which is any poem that contains the word “mother” in it, because no poem with the word “mother” in it is about how much they love their mothers, because if they loved their mothers, god, they wouldn’t be so fucking sad all the time], well, that’s when it gets vicious.) During these interactions, I was able to glean some important information about the American literary landscape, human behavior, and the secret lives of poets, which I provide to you now as a public service:
1. Whereas last year the young asexual crowd was lousy with bowties and handlebar mustaches, this year it was as if they were all LARPing a cross-over episode of Dr. Who and The Grapes of Wrath: dusty old cardigans, scraggly beards, suspenders, hats, old sport coats, long stares into the great middle distance, a general countenance that suggested the color brown, the far off wisdom that time is just a social construct, a tendency to clutch one’s messenger bag to one’s chest with the lost kind of forlornness that only arrives when one begins to see the raw truth that one’s thesis isn’t going to get approved. The preponderance of strange beards — it was difficult to ascertain if they were countryman beards, hipster beards, or sexual reassignment beards, which complicated the issue — suggested that the Grapes of Wrath were morphing into more of a Game of Thrones vibe in many cases, but also gave the attendees a feral appearance, as if they were already firmly entrenched in the midlist like the rest of us.
2. Apparently in Boston, it’s okay if a reading takes place in a subterranean bar that smells like human fecal matter. I feel this is true because I attended a reading at a subterranean bar that smelled of human fecal matter called the Cantab Lounge. To be fair, it also smelled like an animal of some size — like, maybe a bison — had also died somewhere inside the lounge and then human fecal matter was dumped on top of the poor beast. Oddly, in a room filled with highly perceptive people — if you’re attending a reading, you’re highly perceptive, because dull people wouldn’t even attempt to attend a reading — no one seemed all that concerned by the fact that we were literally standing inside of a toilet, which may have been because some excellent people were actually reading (my friends Rob Roberge and Jillian Lauren both read great, short pieces that involved grave robbing and sex, respectively, which is what readings should always contain: some stuff you’re interested in, delivered in an entertaining fashion, and with haste) or because they were just happy to be inside, since there was a blizzard outside. This also wasn’t a surprise: there’s always a blizzard or some other weather calamity at AWP, and yet every year people are surprised. It doesn’t help that most years the conference is held in a city prone to dreadful weather — Chicago and Washington, D.C. most recently, and soon in Minnesota and, if we’re lucky, maybe Medicine Hat. Frozen climes one can deal with. Hearing someone read an essay that uses the term “I digress” more than once, and each time with too much irony, while being suffocated by the fumes of a rotting animal and human shit, well, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
3. Writers, when forced together in a giant mob of anxiety, tend to act oddly. Like the man named Dan, who looked like a more professorial Gene Wilder, who accosted me about some graduate program that, he wanted me to know, was run by a “real asshole.” I tried to tell him that the program he was talking about had nothing to do with me, nor was it even at the same university, but he didn’t seem to care (or perhaps believe), and instead just continued to rant until I asked him if he recognized that he was acting particularly strange. He said yes. (It should be noted: I didn’t know his name at the time of this interaction, because when he came to accost me, he hid his nametag and when I asked him his name, he refused to tell me. Thankfully, my friend Sean witnessed the whole thing and spent the next several hours tracking the man through the conference and finally was able to procure his business card by using a third party as a decoy. Dan’s business card was even more unusual than he was, since it listed the names of authors he was shepherding toward publishing fame. I’m not even entirely sure it was a real card. I mean, the card was real. I have it here in front of me. But I don’t know if anything else about it was.)
4. If you offer food at your booth, weird people will come and talk to you.
Man: [piling through a bowl of candy] Do you have any bigger candy bars?
Me: No, just the miniatures.
Man: I’d like something to bring home to my children.
Me: So you’re going to bring home a candy bar?
Man: They’ll be excited I got it in Boston.
Me: But you could get a candy bar anywhere.
Man: [still piling through the candy] They love Hershey’s Kisses. Do you mind if I take some Kisses?
Me: I guess.
Man: [starts shoving Hershey’s Kisses into his pockets]
Me: They’re going to melt.
Me: The Kisses. They won’t make it home in your pockets. They’ll melt.
Man: Those aren’t for them. They love Kisses and that reminds me of them. These are for me.
Me: Oh. Okay. That makes perfect sense.
Man: Will you have different candy tomorrow?
Me: We’ll have meats and cheeses tomorrow. Come back. Make a sandwich for your kids.
Man: Oh, I will! Thanks!
Woman: [grabbing a handful of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups] Where is this college?
Woman: Oh. I like California. I’ve never heard of this school. How would I get a job here?
Woman: This school of yours.
Me: It’s not mine.
Woman: I’d love to work there.
Me: Fifteen seconds ago, you didn’t even know the school existed.
Woman: Just because I didn’t know it existed doesn’t mean I don’t want to work there.
5. There comes a time at every AWP conference where you realize that poets are just…different. This time, it was when I stumbled across what appeared to be a Bedouin poetry tent parked adjacent to the booth of the magazines A Public Space and Bomb and the publisher Soho Press. I poked my head into the tent, expecting one of those Bugs Bunny moments where an entire mansion would be hidden inside, but instead I found a darkened room where a man with a suspicious looking mustache was reading poetry to two women. There was a haunted-looking doll in one corner, several pillows that looked to have been stolen from the Sheraton in another, a battered suitcase, some blankets, and a smell that reminded me of dorm sex in the Bay Area circa 1992. The following conversation ensued between me and the gentleman with the mustache:
Me: What are you doing in here?
Mustache: Just reading some poetry to each other.
Me: Oh. Ah. Okay.
Me: [staring, trying to figure out how I’d aged so quickly, how time had become my enemy, how the idea of building a tent sounded pretty cool, actually, but not something I could conceive doing without irony, and then thinking how perhaps these fine people had no need for irony, that I was clearly the fucktard in this equation and that they were doing what made them happy and that my desire to mock was born out of my own shallow sense of self and, fuck, man, I needed to get back home to see a professional about these things]: Well, cool.
It was undeniably…odd…but you know what? It was also awesome. They’d come to a giant conference filled with people so fraught with professional jealousy that they can hardly enter a Barnes & Noble without a handful of Xanax (or, you know, will have professional jealousy in the near future if everything works according to plan) and they’d built a strange tent where they did their thing. It didn’t smell like fecal matter. No one seemed all that concerned about anything other than what they were reading. Not a bad place to hang out, really, with 10,000 of their closest friends.
Image courtesy of the author.
All over Book Expo America, the country’s largest book industry trade show, were signs of the major trends in publishing and bookselling. Environmentalism was the order of the day, and everywhere I went there were signs of the industry “going green.” At the American Booksellers Association’s annual Day of Education, Ed Begley Jr. gave the keynote address on how he’s shaped his and his family’s life around notions of conservation, and how independent businesses, particularly indie bookstores, carry on the rich tradition of independent thinking in America. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, followed this with a luncheon address that stressed the independent bookselling community’s importance as a bastion of intellectual and political freedom. This set the stage nicely for ABA’s major new initiative.Hours later, the ABA made the long-awaited announcement that Book Sense is no more. It has been replaced by IndieBound, a hipper, younger brand that will attempt to involve independent businesses of every ilk – from independent bookstores to independent dry cleaners to… well, you get the point. I think most everyone would agree that Book Sense had served its purpose and needed reinvigoration. Whereas Book Sense hoped to present a unified front of indies in the face of competition from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, IndieBound represents an effort to return to the idea of the neighborhood bookstore and the importance of shopping locally. While the initiative definitely has its share of skeptics (I don’t particularly see how it will help bookstores compete in the online marketplace), it is an infinitely better brand than Book Sense. If the locavore movement can gain traction, maybe this can, as well.Having BEA in LA was something of a mixed blessing. While it was nice to sleep in my own bed at the end of the night, the stress of everyday life added to the stress of being in 24/7 mingle mode can be a bit much. I did my best to partake of the many parties around town, but eventually I ran out of gas. Edan made it to the Skylight Bookstore party, where she ran into Pinky, some cool people from McNally Robinson in NYC (including Jessica from the Written Nerd), Kelly Link and the folks from Small Beer Press. While she was mixing it up there, I went to the Disney Books dinner at Patina. The guest list included some of the major authors in children’s and young adult books today: Eoin Colfer, Jonathan Stroud, Kevin Carroll, Ann M. Martin and Brian Selznick, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Riordan, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. At first, I was profoundly uncomfortable, as I seemed to be the only person in the room who didn’t have strong opinions on every kids’ book published in the last five years, but after a while (and, let’s face it, a few drinks) I felt more and more at ease. You might think a kids’ book dinner thrown by Disney would be tame. You would be wrong. I didn’t go to every dinner at BEA, but I feel safe in saying this was among the raunchiest. Robert Kennedy told a joke about sexual congress between a leprechaun and a penguin. ‘Nuff said. I laughed throughout dinner and learned a pretty good amount about the authors as well. The evening ended with me convincing a group of booksellers that it would be a good idea to forgo a cab and take the metro to their hotel. The metro only runs until midnight here in LA, and I was warned several times that if we missed the train and ended up stranded in scenic downtown LA, then I would have sold my last book, so to speak. Thankfully for me, we caught the last train out of downtown and everybody lived to see the trade show the next day.The BEA trade show floor, like most large conferences, can be overwhelming without a plan. Mine was fairly simple – spend Friday in panels and meetings, visiting a couple of priority booths in my spare time, then use Saturday (and Sunday, if absolutely necessary) to see the rest of the show. After attending a meeting on the future of the IndieBound webstore, I ducked in to hear Thomas Friedman’s keynote address. He read from his forthcoming book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. While I waited for him to take the stage, I chatted with my neighbor about a Thursday panel I had missed about the future of the e-book. She told me I hadn’t missed much, but that Adobe, Palm, Microsoft, and the others had finally agreed on a single format, making it much easier to compete with the Amazon. Friedman’s address focused again on environmentalism and America’s need to lead the way to finding clean, sustainable sources of energy.After a day of meetings, planned or otherwise (I ran into Nam Le and did a bit of catching up) and a couple of cocktail parties (drinks with Alec Baldwin in support of his book about divorce (Stephen Baldwin was there!), followed by the Ecco Press/Book Soup party at Palihouse, where I drank a sickly sweet champaign cocktail), I was back at BEA early Saturday morning to hit the booths. I put in appearance at McSweeney’s, which was easily the least conspicuous booth there. Just Eli Horowitz and Andrew Leland sitting behind a card table. I made the rounds of the major publishers, guided for a brief bit by Mark Sarvas, who happened to be walking the floor with Jim Ruland of Vermin on the Mount. We hit the Grey Wolf Press booth, where I picked up a copy of a new story collection by Jeffrey Renard Allen called Holding Pattern.Rather than laboriously describe each booth and every galley I got (I got too many), I’ll just touch on the highlights. It seemed I had something nice to say about every book that Da Capo brought with them – I had positively reviewed Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table for Publishers Weekly, I had been a long-time vocal advocate of Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and I’ve been dying to read David Browne’s biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, of which I snagged a copy. I had a great time talking to Gavin and Jedediah at Small Beer Press, and walked away with a copy of John Kessel’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. Early on Thursday morning, I’d run into Amy and Janet, two women from Athens, GA who are opening a bookstore there called Avid. They introduced me to Eric and Eliza Jane from Two Dollar Radio, a really cool small press publishing bold, innovative fiction by Rudolph Wurlitzer, Amy Koppelman, and others. I did my usual bit of groveling at the feet of the New York Review of Books, where I thanked them for introducing me to J.F. Powers. They were sweethearts and gave me a pin. At the Tin House booth, I talked up Jim Krusoe’s upcoming event at Vroman’s, which resulted in me snagging a couple of books, including Krusoe’s new Girl Factory and a novel by Adam Braver called November 22, 1963. And finally, as the day wore on and my feet swelled to twice their original size, I spotted somebody in the FSG booth pulling ARCs of Robert Bolano’s 2666 out of a box. I grabbed one. It’s 912 pages long, weighs several pounds, and looks better than 90% of the paperbacks published this year. On Saturday night, I slept.For a complete rundown of BEA from the bookseller’s perspective, check out the Vroman’s Bookstore blog.
The casino is the anti-writing space: a room designed to intoxicate, lull, distract from rather than encourage critical thought. When I left New York three years ago to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, several friends advised that I avoid the so-called “green felt jungle”.
“Don’t blow your funding on a roulette spin!” I heard a lot of jokes in that vein. My friends were being 100 percent facetious: I’d visited Atlantic City just once during eight years in New York. I was notoriously frugal and didn’t even play fantasy football. I was not a gambler. And I think about that now every time I lose at blackjack or craps. When I’m taken for a fish at poker. I think about it often.
The thing is, I’m not one of those writers who thrive in quiet solitude. Although I work fine at home during the day, by nightfall, it’s the boisterous din of a bar or cafe that keeps my muse awake. In Las Vegas, those outings often lead past blinking casino marquees, neon-lit gaming floors packed with seductively plinking slot machines and tuxedoed dealers doling out chips for groups of hooting patrons that, I figure, might as well include me.
There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist — or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I’ll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the 19th draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed.
I met my girlfriend in the MFA program, and we developed a routine early on in our relationship. After a late writing session, I’d ask if she wanted to visit a casino “just to check out the tables,” as if a sign would be posted announcing that we’d surely, definitely, probably win. “Oh yeah. I mean if you want to,” she’d say. Next time, it would be her turn to instigate, my night to acquiesce.
They say gambling is all about odds, but the only statistic we paid attention to was the 50 percent chance this routine allowed us to enter a casino in the passive role of a supportive boyfriend or girlfriend. Going bust always sucks, but it’s significantly less depressing to leave as an unlucky tag-along than as a shamed provocateur. That, fellow bettors, is a losing combo.
So we became regulars at the El Cortez — an old mobster casino now frequented by geriatrics, budget travelers, and locals like us who can’t afford the higher stakes action on the Strip. It smelled of expired perfume and decades of cigarette smoke, but I didn’t mind. Attuned instead to the buzz of risk in the air, I chased winning roulette numbers and made sloppy bets at blackjack and craps. Roaming under soft pink lights, I moved from one cold table to the next, begging croupiers to “go easy on me!” It’s standard practice to blame the dealer for a miserable run and apparently against the rules for her to explain each game’s miserable odds.
Channeling the ghost of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the patron saint of writers who moonlight as problem gamblers), we started visiting a bigger, seamier resort that also offered sports betting and poker. It was named Terrible’s Hotel & Casino, and that’s precisely how it went.
So why do it? As a graduate assistant, I made a fraction of what I earned as a journalist in New York (and I felt poor there!). So what was I thinking? The short answer is: I don’t know. Whether gambling is physically or psychologically addictive is still subject to debate. Some blame the appeal on endorphins released during games of chance, while others say compulsive gambling results from a mental itch to repeat reward acts. I won’t wade too far into that except to say that though I can certainly attest to a physical rush (as anyone who’s ever played bingo can), for me, it’s all about a want and need to socialize, to wind down. In contrast to the cerebral work of crafting fiction or reading a dense novel, gambling is a mindless diversion. Forget that this is exactly how casinos want you to approach their games. Never mind that a professional card player demonstrates the sober, calculating adroitness of a mathematician when a new hand is dealt. I’m not him. I play for fun. Haruki Murakami runs marathons, the great Amy Hempel volunteers at animal shelters, and Flannery O’Connor had her Catholic faith. Me, I toss plastic chips onto green felt.
Part of gambling’s appeal is that a writing life requires so much waiting. You wait six months for a submission to be rejected, wait for that rare story that is accepted to finally come out, wait for agents to notice your “exciting new voice,” wait for another round of rejections, wait for readers to respond to your work. It’s as tortuous as listening to Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” while running on a treadmill. Then take the long view. I’ll probably need 10 years to recognize whether the MFA experience panned out. Not so with that 20 bucks on red or this double down on 11.
“Bad beats” — those gambling losses that should have been wins — can always be written-off as research anyway. Is there a more fitting metaphor for the American experience than the action playing out on a casino floor? In poker rooms, people with little money are regularly bullied around by high rollers whose towers of chips clearly mean nothing to them. Two of the business world’s most annoying clichés ring true in that corner of the casino: It takes money to make money, so the rich get richer.
I prefer craps, where players win or lose together; “hot dice” act as icebreakers, and people who’d never meet on the street forge unions that span age, race, and class on rare occasions when collective optimism seems finally enough to beat the dreaded house — that oligarchy upstairs.
In his novel The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes: “I had come [to the casino] not only to look at, but also to number myself sincerely and wholeheartedly with, the mob. As for my secret moral views, I had no room for them amongst my actual, practical opinions.”
He, too, used trips to smoky grottos like the El Cortez and Terrible’s as occasions to study politics and psychology. I should add, though, that Dostoyevsky was also a hopeless roulette addict who published The Gambler to pay back creditors who threatened to keep the rights to his literary output for nine years. Although marketed as fiction, The Gambler is, in fact, a roman à clef about the author’s own tortured self-deception, the kind inherent in gambling addict platitudes like, “It’s okay. I don’t have a problem. I can win it back.”
He didn’t win it back. It merits repeating (at least for my own sake) that Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of that problem by delivering a book in 30 days, succeeding through work in lieu of luck. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Teaching on a campus where 75 percent of the student body grew up in Las Vegas is instructive, too. It’s not uncommon to receive an English 101 essay from someone whose father had a blackjack habit so crippling, his tearful mother gathered the kids and moved out. A creative writing student once submitted a poem about children who rescue their mother from a castle that sounds an awful lot like The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles like a slot machine.
Here’s the part of the essay where I admit that gambling is not always interesting, always novel. Broke and angry and ashamed is also no way to spend graduate school, so I’ve cut back on trips to the green felt jungle. I prefer to explore weird Vegas as a journalist now, a role that begs a certain professional distance.
When I chose to move here, I did so partially inspired by Nevada’s vulgar brand of escapism because there’s something oddly poetic in the concept of a Sin City in the desert. Its bright lights and dark alleys offer a striking and sometimes horrific tour of the American id. But I merely wanted to study these traits, not emulate them. Going up and then down, then down, and down again was not part of the plan. Yet the MFA program has allowed my Vegas bet to pay off, even when it hasn’t. The people I’ve come to consider friends and mentors consistently prove that one can succeed as a writer in Las Vegas without indulging on its buffet of vices (well, not overindulging anyway).
I will say this, though: You learn to deal with rejection amidst the neon, which is good. In writing, as in gambling, when starting out you’ll probably lose more often than you’ll win. The key is to survive long enough to hit a winning streak, and if that day comes with my fiction, I’ll increase the wager by putting in longer hours at my desk, I’ll decline drink offers. Submit more.
The hope is that I’m a better with words than I am with dice or cards. Otherwise that slogan about “what happens in Vegas” will apply to my writing as well.
Image Credit: Pixabay.