I’d never done a reading before. The appeal that writing holds for me is that you do it sequestered, and you meet your public on the page, or in correspondence. But I was visiting my French writer friend Guillaume in Portland, Oregon, and he was doing a reading and asked me to take part. I wouldn’t have said yes if I hadn’t been drunk. He wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t been drunk. But that’s how these things happen.
And so I found myself the opening act for Guillaume at the legendary independent bookstore, Powell’s City of Books. I hadn’t brought any books to sell, but Guillaume said that would be a plus: it would make me appear aloof and indifferent. “But my book isn’t even on the shelves here,” I’d protested the night before. “Think of them as sold out,” Guillaume slurred over the top of his umpteenth MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale. “Besides, I invited a bunch of Estonian friends.”
The next evening, I sat on a stool staring down a packed room of serious readers who had come to see Guillaume. A Powell’s worker, an not-quite-goth twenty-something with a pierced lip, dreadlocks, and a strand of concertina-wire tattooed around her wrist, droned through the introduction of me that Guillaume had given her to read. …Vello Vikerkaar is one of the most talented homosexual men writing on the topic of modern Estonia... There were a few chuckles, and I then understood why Guillaume had refused to let me proof what he’d written. He had mentioned only that he’d take care of me and that Powell’s customers had well-developed senses of humor.
Guillaume had insisted I read my essay, “Cock Ring Ken,” and to put all modesty aside I have to say the crowd approved. There was laughter in the right places, and the applause seemed sincere rather than perfunctory. Then the Powell’s worker announced I’d have time for a few questions.
“Where can we get your book?”
I held one dog-eared copy in my hands, the one I’d borrowed from Guillaume’s bathroom. “Amazon,” I replied, thrilled that things had gone exactly as Guillaume had predicted. I started to silently count heads, thinking what if every one of them bought my book. Oh, the whiskey I’d buy.
There was a second hand in the crowd.
“Do you know Justin Petrone?” She was a plain but still attractive blonde who added an extra syllable to Justin’s family name. Pe-tron-eh.
I said that I knew him.
“I really like his book. He’s a very funny writer.”
I said that I agreed.
“He was in Los Angeles on a book tour. I heard him read there.”
“Great.” I had no idea Justin was touring. A vision came to me of the smiling Italian-American at a table in front of his books stacked to the ceiling, a Sharpie marker in hand, and a line of fans running out the door. Estonians love Justin. If a foreigner is ever put on the cover of Kroonika for reasons other than drug smuggling or murder, Justin will be the one.
“Are you also on a book tour?”
“Well,” and I paused. I wondered if I should tell the truth, or if I had some sort of tacit obligation to keep up an image. Would Powell’s really want me to confess my book has the word “shit” in the title and is published in an obscure foreign language in a country with only two bookstores? And should I admit that my English-language book sells far, far fewer copies than Justin’s, producing revenues that could never hope to cover the cost of a book tour?
“Vello is touring with me,” Guillaume shouted from the crowd, saving me, but making it clear I was just an opening act.
“Well you should try to get Justin Petrone to come here,” replied the blonde, knowing the main act was listening.
Alone on the stool, I quietly reminded myself that not all opening acts suck. After all, Lou Reed opened for U2.
Then Guillaume took the stage and really saved me.
Later on the blonde cornered me. Her name was Tiiu, and she said she used to read my stuff online. “Used to?” She’d all but insisted I ask.
“You’re not always kind, Vikerkaar. You sometimes make fun of Estonians. I don’t think you should do that.”
“But I make fun of myself, too, sometimes, right?” I would hope that she’d at least grant me that.
“I like Justin Petrone and Abdul Turay,” she shrugged.
You can’t fault her honesty, that’s for sure. But I then understood why I haven’t done readings. Take Guillaume, for instance. His books aren’t bestsellers, but he’s a well-respected literary writer for whom the intellectual community will turn out to see. A documentary was recently made about him. He is asked to write for the big name glossies. But even he has horror stories from readings. He was once invited by an American university to read on campus, and nobody showed up to see him. Not one single person. He blamed the shitty weather, shrugged it off, and proposed to the hosting professor that the two of them go drink beer. “No,” said the professor. “We brought you all this way, and so you’ll read.” And so Guillaume had to sit on a stool in front of the professor and read to him in an empty room for a full hour, all the while constructing painful death scenarios for the asshole professor.
If Tiiu is any indication of an average book buyer, then I’m thinking what might be good would be for me, Justin Petrone, and Abdul Turay to go on a book tour together. Justin and Abdul could pay me a percentage of their book sales to appear with them, to play the role of darkness which makes lights around it appear brighter. And if things get too bad for me, if the suffering in the role of the group cynic grows too painful, Sami Lotila could be added as a fourth.
The lesson of all this is probably to stop drinking so I won’t agree to do stupid shit anymore. Or perhaps it’s to be kinder in print. I’m not sure which would be easier.
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