jason christoper hartley

April 27, 2006

“Fucking Voltron, man!” – A night at the Progressive Reading Series

Filed under: News & Politics — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 12:17 am

I haven’t been to many readings. In fact, the one I went to last Monday was only my second. The line-up was pretty impressive and I was excited to meet a few of the authors. Anthony Swofford was the headline attraction, but he ultimately didn’t show. I’ll admit this was a big disappointment, but in retrospect I think I should have known better. The guy’s book was made into a motion picture directed by Sam Mendes and he probably had better things to do like count money and admire his beard in the mirror. I was also really excited to meet Stephen Elliot, the author of Happy Baby, among other works, and David Rees, the madman behind Get Your War On.

The reading was part of the Progressive Reading Series, “A monthly literary benefit to support progressive congressional candidates nationwide”. These readings are hosted by Elliot and LitPAC, a political action committee behind it all.

This reading had scheduled the following authors:
Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead
Adrienne Miller, author of The Coast Of Akron
David Rees, author of Get Your War On (fuck yeah!)
Jonathan Ames, author of I Love You More Than You Know
Paul LaFarge, author of Hausmann, Or The Distinction
Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb

The reading was held at the Galapogos Artspace, a bar and performance space in Williamsburg. For the uninitiated, Williamsburg is the epicenter of hip and one of my favorite places to make fun of. The first stop on the L train once you’re beyond the East River is Bedford Avenue, the main drag through hipsterville. In high schools during the time between classes when student bustle through the halls, there’s always an apparent homogeny of style—everyone looks and behaves in a way that is no more than two permutations from a discrete set of current norms. Then cross-pollination between sects of style is where the uniformity subtly appears—the jock wears the studded leather belt of the goth who wears the obscenely baggy cargo pants of the rave kid who wears the Knicks jersey of the Jock, and so forth. Once you step off the train at the Bedford stop, the platform is the hallway of hipster high school between classes. Everyone has a hand-sewn skirt, colored-band tube sock wrist-warmers, semi-cheap quasi-chic sunglasses, loud sneakers, and bed hair. Oh, and everyone’s twenty-four and white. This isn’t to say I don’t like Williamsburg, because I do. I like any place that has creative energy, but I really have to laugh out loud sometimes. There literally are thrift stores that sell old shit that is more expensive than new shit. The Gap doesn’t sell the Ironic Uniform, so you have to pay premium prices for that blazer that’s just old enough to be a new classic, or whatever. Seriously, I could make fun of Williamsburg all day. You see, I am above hipness. This is the benefit of being lame—too arrogant and lazy to join the club, but not above mocking it. However, every once in a while that girl with the unwashed hair and chapped lips with mismatched socks drooping down over her low-cut Chuck Taylors is actually sorta cute.

Since the reading series is called “Progressive”, I suppose it would be a transgressive to have it held anywhere other than Williamsberg. The Galapagos Artspace is like many of the bars in the area. You walk down a dark hall (in this case, a mezzanine of sorts) wondering if you went the right way.

After I paid my cover, I saw Stephen Elliott standing at a table near the entrance. The reading was about to start, so I figured I’d better introduce myself before he got mobbed at the end with offers for hip after-parties. Stephen is bit on the shorter side, but solidly built. His arms and shoulders are muscular and an arm band tattoo around his bicep was peeking out from beneath his shirt sleeve. Something I should admit is that I’m a bit of a Nazi when it comes to handshakes. Any guy who doesn’t give me a solid handshake and look me square in the eye is a piece of shit. That’s pretty much my take on it. I’ve been told that all authors hate each other, so my hypersensitivity sorta had me expecting Stephen to be dismissive or impatient. But I was wrong! His handshake was solid and he looked me right in the eye. In fact, I was a bit envious of his hands—they were really good. I’ve been cursed with a permanent boyishness that makes me admire those masculine things that are out of my reach. This is why I joined the Army—to compensate for my lack of manliness. I’ve learned, though, that being a combat infantryman doesn’t actually make you any manlier. All I’ve ever wanted is for people to see me and think, Oh, he’s in the infantry! He saw action! Treat him with the awe and respect he deserves! But more often, the reaction I get from people is, That guy’s kind of a dick. But his skin sure was soft!

Stephen graciously signed the hard bound copy of Happy Baby I brought with me. He wrote a short note inside and his handwriting was virtually illegible. The fact that I could even figure out what it read is proof that the written word need not contain much actual information, but that context and colloquialism are some of the most important parts of communication. His crazy chicken scratch writing made it that much cooler. I liked imagining that the protracted suffering of his youth was being articulated in his penmanship.

[Stephen's psycho chicken scratch]
Stephen’s psycho chicken scratch

The bar was well stocked and the bar staff were attentive. I ordered a Guinness. It came in a tall, skinny pint glass, or beer flute I suppose you’d have to could call it. Guinness is something that is easy to fuck up depending on how adept the establishment is at finding the correct balance of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the condition of the line from the keg to the tap. Amazingly, this was probably the best Guinness I’d ever had. I don’t know if this is an indictment of how bad the Guinness is at the bars I frequent, or if Galapagos actually just serves really good Guinness. It tasted so good, in fact, three of them had slid down my gullet before I knew what happened.

[the host Stephen Elliot]

Since Mr. Swofford was a no-show and I had now met Stephen, I was really just waiting to see David Rees. Janice Erlbaum read an excellent story called “Bead Lady Gets A Chirp” about her work with adolescent girls at a shelter. Her depiction of the girls communicating with each other through the two-way feature of their cell phones was priceless. Since she makes bead necklaces with the girls, they call her “Bead Lady”. You can read the entire story at her blog, girlbomb.typepad.com. Here’s my favorite part:

“Bead Lady up there?”
“What you think?”
“Yo, give Bead Lady a shout for me.”
I duck my head so I can smile furiously behind my hair. I have been shouted at. I have been chirped. And you know us white people — we love it when you chirp us.

I believe Adrienne Miller read an excerpt from her book, “The Coast of Akron”, but to be completely honest, I didn’t pay attention to one goddamned word she said. Adrienne Miller is skinny as hell and I couldn’t stop staring at her. She’s clearly a very attractive woman, but her top was too tight for me to concentrate on anything else. She stood in a perfect and unmoving contrapposto the entire time she read. Her small breasts were as equally unmoving, firmly pressed against her ribcage beneath her red cellophane-tight, spaghetti-strapped top. My first thought was that she was entirely too thin. Then I thought about it a bit and decided it was probably pretty hot. Then I quickly went back to thinking that, No, she was in fact frightfully thin. I wondered what it was like to have sex with someone that thin. Would it be Ethiopian-weird, or don’t-fuck- me-too-hard-I’m-fragile-weird? I guessed maybe it could be cool because it would be easier to feel like the man in the situation. But is that really what guys think when they have sex with skinny girls? Why are we attracted to the skinny ones? If we’re attracted to features that are genetically superior, like athletic builds and healthy breasts, what’s with thinking beanstalk girls are hot? I was pretty sure I’d be able to completely fit each of her breasts in my hands. Despite her thin arms, her shoulders were broad, giving her upper body the overall appearance of a perfect square while she read. Her red top was also very squarish and then I realized that she looked to be composed entirely of rectangular shapes. Maybe it’s because I’m a geek and I’m fascinated by rudimentary shapes and spatial relations, but the geometry of her appearance was actually quite pleasing. If she were in a step-by-step drawing book, she’d be started out by sketching a few very satisfying rectangles and squares. She didn’t flinch while she read. It’s like she was a soldier. I started to feel guilty. She’s reading and all I’m thinking about is how tight her shirt is. But she knew what she was wearing when she put it on. So it wasn’t completely my fault I was fixated on it, right? William T. Vollmann said in an interview once that readings exist for two reasons only: for the gratification of the author’s ego and for the author to get laid. I wondered if this was true too for female authors and Adrienne just wanted to meet a nice guy. I didn’t see any harm in that. But I couldn’t get over the fact that I was certain she would put her writing before her appearance and would probably be pretty upset that all I remembered about her reading was how thin she looked and how tight her top was. (For the record, I immediately tried to buy her book a few days later, as a penance for being such a pig, and to at least have something to say about her writing, but alas, her book won’t be on bookstore shelves until May.)

[the skinny Adrienne Miller]

[Adrienne Miller's author photo I stole off Amazon]

A real surprise treat was Jonathan Ames. He read a story called “No Contact, Asshole!” about his experience being with a dominatrix and her transvestite boyfriend. The best line of the reading was this: “Then it ended the way these things usually end: Somebody gets a paper towel and you wish you were never born.” The story ends with him struggling with his feelings of guilt, but also the love he feels while playing with his young son and the other children in a municipal swimming pool while his son’s grandmother looks on. The story was funny as hell and Jonathan’s delivery was wonderfully deadpan, like Steven Wright, but bald and with blonde eyebrows. Jonathan is compared to David Sedaris a lot, but I found him to be more Bukowski-like, which is a good thing in my book. At the end of his reading, he made a very strange sound three times called the “hairy call“—something he said he and his friends would use to alert each other that they were being attacked by the normal kids. It sounded like a cross between a duck call and a Klaxon. Go to the previous link to hear the sound.

[the scatalogical Jonathan Ames]

Once David Rees took the stage, he was even better than I had imagined. He was a tall, white guy with dark, brown, parted hair that stood high, in the spirit Jim Jarmusch. He wore a brown suit, like the one I’m sure he wore to the interview he had for the cubicle-dwelling job I feel he might still have. For me, the hair is what really made it. He presented his comic strips on transparencies with an overhead projector. He read the captions exactly the way I imagined he would, and I have to tell you it was all very satisfying. It’s not like watching someone read is anything more than colossally boring, but there’s just something cool about seeing someone read their own work. I already know the Get Your War On comic strips pretty damn well, so it’s not like much of what he showed us was new to me, but all I was really doing was watching him—his body language, his tone, his inflection, his gesticulations. I already knew the message, I just wanted to see the actor. Maybe that’s why I paid so little attention to what Adrienne Miller was saying. I’ve never been a very good auditory learner.

[the wicked-funny David Rees]

Voltron comic 1, 18-FEB-02

Voltron comic 4, 18-FEB-02

Generals comic 1, 20-MAR-06

After the readings, I bought “Get Your War On II” and Jonathan Ames’s book, “I Love You More Than You Know”. While I got Jonathan to sign my copy of his book, I busted out a quick bit of shameless self-promotion and told him about my own book. He was nice and asked me what my experience was like publishing my first book. I told him I felt a little lost in the sauce, being with such a large publisher. He told no author ever thinks their publisher is doing enough for them. What’s funny is a few days later when I was reading his book, I realized that what he said to me, almost word for word, was in one of his essays. I wanted to call him up immediately to tell him how funny I thought he was for doing that, but I realized I don’t know him well enough to do that, and besides, I have no idea what his number is.

[Jonathan Ames's autograph]

I also was able to grab David Rees just as he was leaving. By this time I was slightly drunk and I felt no shame asking him to draw Voltron in my copy of his book. When you’re drunk, telling David Rees, “FUCKING VOLTRON, MAN!”, you think it’s quite hilarious, but later you realize you probably sounded like a dick. He had a hat on at this point, which I found very disappointing, because I wanted to have another look at his awesome hair. I also gave David my quick spiel about my book. Once he realized I was the guy who had a blog who got in trouble with the Army, his face kind of lit up and the recognition made me feel good. Again, I was too drunk or maybe just too dumb to realize he was probably thinking about Colby Buzzell or Leonard Clark. I wish more than anything I could have hung out with him, but he looked eager to leave.

[David Rees's autograph]

Once the readings were done, all the authors, even Stephen, left fairly quickly. I was hoping everyone would hang out for hours afterward, getting drunk and talking shit, but I guess this isn’t the case with readings. I stayed and had another Guinness. It was their loss, really. After the reading, the next act was a burlesque show hosted by a Freddie Mercury impersonator who juggled.

the burlesque dancers

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The stuff I’m talkin’ about:

Happy Baby, by Stephen ElliottI Love Your More Than You Know, by Jonathan Ames
Girlbomb, by Janice ErlbaumThe Coast of Akron, by Adrienne Miller
Get Your War On II, by David Rees

2 Responses to ““Fucking Voltron, man!” – A night at the Progressive Reading Series”

  1. Cheeseburglar Says:

    Glad to see your writing talents are being put to good use again Jason. It is a uniquely pleasant experience to be made to laugh, be engaged, and sent twice to the dictionary, all by the same article.
    You are about as matter-of-fact as it gets — but you take the straight facts, jam a firehose up their ass, and crank open the flavor valve.
    Thanks for putting up the Tilly and the Wall bytes, I heard them on NPR about half a year ago driving in my car and I wanted to remember who they were so I could check them out, but I never could remember.

    See you soon buddy.

  2. Taylor Hartley Says:

    Hi Jase,

    Great mini-gun video! The music isn’t Wagner but comes from Carmina Burana by Orff. The very first song of the work is the one you’re listening to–”Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi: O Fortuna.” Check it out on Amazon.com.

    Take care,

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