Knopf at powerHouse

1. Monika Woods, is a writer. She’s halfway through Swamplandia!, and a fan. Nick Borelli is an artist and a Ben Marcus enthusiast. 2. Ellie Lord is a big reader. Mallory Rice edits the books page for Nylon magazine.

At 8 p.m. on Tuesday I was at the powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, killing time before the Knopf author showcase. I stood with my friend by the bar. “Look who’s in front of you,” she whispered. I looked right up into Jim Shepard’s mustache. “And behind you.” There, tiny, lovely, was Sloane Crosley.

We were apparently surrounded by literary greatness. Literary greatness apparently surrounds the bar.

1. Karen Russell and Sloane Crosley on the couch. Or sofa. 2. Jim Shepard reading.

Just before showtime, Karen Russell and Ben Marcus squeezed in alongside Shephard and Crosley on the couch — or sofa, a classier word, as Crosley pointed out when she got up.

“What I’m going to do is skip all the sad parts and read all the funny parts,” Crosley said before launching into an essay about her addiction to fenced luxury home décor from How Did You Get This Number.

Karen Russell, reading a few minutes later, did the opposite: She read just the sad bits from the opening to Swamplandia!

Russell uses verbs beautifully. Seriously. Adjectives too. A sign contains “livid” lettering. Fame “settled like a film.” A boat “listed.” Pages of a book were “foxed.” The word “tenanted” appeared, which I have loved ever since “Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace.

1. A good crowd came out Tuesday night to see the quartet at the powerHouse Arena. 2. Ben Marcus. Also reading.

Ben Marcus was the only one to read from an upcoming book, Flame Alphabet, in which language becomes toxic to everyone but children. Children do not use this power for good. This novel about the ugly power of language also contains some beautiful words. The main character sponges his wife clean, carefully moving over “the skin that once held her breasts.” Soon after, he admits of his daughter that, “We loved her best in hindsight.”

But Marcus goes dark. Dark like this, describing how the world had descended into chaos:

“You’d see a neighbor with a rifle. And you’d hear that rifle go off.”

That shot triggered a short, barky laugh from Jim Shepard, who read last. He went in robustly, highlighting the role of voice in his stories, this one about an unhappy man whose wife recommends he have an affair, which indirectly causes him to climb naked onto his roof to feel the night breeze on his bare ass. People laughed. Shepard slapped the book shut and strode off.

So you see, we got a bit of everything. Fiction and non. Funny and dire. Long and short. And all seemed to have one foot firmly placed in humor (even Marcus, whose humor tends to be of the black variety) and the other in writing that digs into the parts of ourselves we rarely talk about in public.

After a few awkward questions, the formal reading broke up. Maybe because they came in a group, the authors seemed more at ease than usual, the spotlight spread over all four. They melted into the crowd before heading to sign some books, laughing and chatting like people do on a dark sweaty night just shy of summer.

–Lisa Riordan Seville is a writer and reporter in Brooklyn.

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