1. This crowd is always really good looking! 2. Host and Curator Penina Roth MCing.
Fall arrived in NYC in full force Monday night, and not just because of the rain. Penina Roth and crew brought their Fall Blockbusters to Crown Heights bar and defacto literary hub Franklin Park for a behemoth of a literary evening. Marie-Helene Bertino (Safe as Houses), Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures), Scott McClanahan (The Collected Stories of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1), Michael Kimball (Big Ray), and A.M. Homes (May We Be Forgiven) brought haunted and gloomy stories that were cozy and warm nevertheless. There was grief, death and despair, but there was also a teenage girl’s hope and determination and Scott McClanahan’s ballroom dancing.
1. Author Marie-Helene Bertino: “Do you want to buy my sob story?” 2. L-R: Polly Bresnick, writer; Melissa Febos, writer; A nice person who posed for me but left the table; Angel Nafis, poet (her chapbook BlackGirl Mansion launches here); Shira Erlichman, freelance wrestler; Eleanor Kriseman, dog expert; Lillian Weber, writer and brainstormer of memoir titles; and Syreeta McFadden, a writer, papakraza, teacher and bookseller.
First up was Marie-Helene Bertino reading from her debut story collection Safe as Houses. Bertino read the entirety of “This Is Your Will To Live,” which finds lonely Elaine Hemphill’s life interrupted by one Foster Grass, a door-to-door salesman. “‘What a beautiful space,’ he said. I was fond of him immediately, in the way we feel kinship to those who compliment us.” Elaine’s skeptical curiosity is enough for Grass’ pitch: a small figurine housed in a small wooden box that plays the salesman’s “sob story.” “‘You know,’” Elaine says, “‘I have a sob story of my own.’ He nodded. Then he glanced at the bandages on my wrist.” Each time Foster offers Elaine a way out from her own sob story—his heart (literally) on a plate, bath salts that are Elaine’s “will to live”—she rebukes him. Foster doesn’t make his sale, and they don’t make it out as friends, but Elaine does move out of her despair by realizing she’s not the only one who feels pain.
1. Emma Straub: “There was a clarity to the air that made you remember you were from Wisconsin.” 2. Antonio Cuccus, a music journalist, with Jared Fagan, an editorial assistant. Both are gearing up to launch Black Sun Press. Keep eyes peeled.
Next up was Emma Straub and her debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Straub was appropriately glamorous in a white silk dress for her tale of Elsa Emerson’s transformation into Hollywood starlet Laura Lamont. But before any of that happens, Elsa needs a reason to escape the midwest, and it comes in the form of her sister’s suicide. “No one ever moved into Hildy’s room.” Desperate for distance from the grief, Elsa resolves to marry Gordon, an actor in town who’s en route to California. “Gordon looked like he could wind up a leading man, which made Elsa feel like she might be in love, after all—wasn’t that how it happened? … If it were a play, Elsa thought it might have a happy ending.” Straub’s prose is like being wrapped in the hands of a parent or best friend, simultaneously critical and sympathetic. Elsa’s youthful optimism isn’t chastised, but celebrated. “Elsa was going to do great things in California—she was going to do enough for two whole lives.”
1. This is Scott McClanahan. 2. Chloe McConnell, cool person at the New Yorker; Christine Vines, founder of Fiction Addiction; Emily Wunderlich, who is pure VIP.
I have a lot of words and even more feelings for Scott McClanahan. His stories aren’t told as much as they are taken in and ephemerally woven through you, the ethereal imprint hanging heavy in the room. Scott reads by not reading: he sings, he maniacally rants, he claps one hand, and he dances with the audience. And last night, he turned Franklin Park into a time machine, told James Joyce to fuck off, transported the room into a classroom watching Superman 4. Watch this video of Scott. (apologies for the slightly blurry quality).
1. Michael Kimball: “Yo daddy’s so fat he sweats mayonnaise.”
After the break, Michael Kimball read from his new novel Big Ray, which recently got a weighty hat tip from this lady named Oprah. I have a lot of feelings for Michael Kimball too. Kimball’s prose traipses between intimacy and detachment. The novel adopts a kind of first-person omniscience that intensifies the reality of the narrator’s complicated grief for the death of his father, without sacrificing any heart. “My father was so fat my arms didn’t go all the way around him when I tried to hug him. I have a wingspan of 6’6” and there was a gap between between my hands where they touched his back.” Kimball then read some Fat Mama jokes tailored for the narrator’s dad. While I felt a bit guilty, it reminded me that sad laughter is still one of the most life-affirming ways to deflect tragedy, that humans often need the comic to understand the tragic. Kimball just has the balls to do it with Fat Father jokes.
1. A.M. Homes: “The accident happens, and then it happens.”
The masterful A.M. Homes rounded out the evening with a reading from her recently published novel May We Be Forgiven, which traces one man’s sordid relationship with not only his rage-prone brother, but his family too. Harry gets a phone call from Jane, wife to his brother George, asking Harry to get George from the police station. A police officer: “‘He ran a red light… husband was killed on impact… Rescue crew used the Jaws of Life to free the wife, upon release she expired.” Back at the house, George is unhinged, stripping naked and sitting in a chair in the dark. George ends up in the psych ward, and Harry “[stays] with Jane, it as though [they are] playing house.” Their game turns serious as Harry seems to take on a fatherly role, when more tragedy strikes. I’m terrified and seduced by Homes’ imagination in the best way–her prose progressively went deeper, darker and sharper into a family on the cusp of reassembling a life, then thrown into total catastrophe.
This was an especially excellent reading from Penina and crew, and if you haven’t made it out to a reading yet, definitely don’t miss next month’s installment, which will be co-hosted by Electric Literature (!). It happens on 11/12, and features Lynne Tillman, Seth Fried, Stephen O’Connor, and J. Robert Lennon.