Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Writing is not performance, not really, but writers are sometimes called upon to perform, live, in person. I’m glad of it. Sure, it’s what’s on the page that matters, but a writer’s physical presence can bring added attention to the words. And, like many, I’m curious about the person behind it all.
As performers, writers are a far-ranging bunch, from self-described ‘hams’ like TC Boyle to recluses like Cormac McCarthy. It is worth noting that McCarthy showed up at last year’s Oscars, where the movie made from his novel No Country for Old Men won best picture. So, perhaps McCarthy is rethinking his position. He reportedly can be charming, even gregarious, in person. In any case, the recluses seem to be taken more seriously as writers. This hardly seems right.
Let’s look at Boyle. First, let me say I’m a big fan. (McCarthy, too, but that’s a different blog.) I first got hooked when I read World’s End, Boyle’s ‘historical fugue’ about Westchester County, NY. It’s probably still my favorite Boyle novel. The hook got set deeper when, maybe 20 years ago, I found myself driving from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City with the writer Cammie McGovern. As I drove, Cammie read aloud from the title story of Boyle’s collection Greasy Lake. “There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then.” Two sentences, and he had me. Finally, last night, I got to see him live.
I’d been stalking Boyle for some time. Not literally, but literarily. For instance, when I lived in Westchester county I traveled to Peekskill to see what Boyle would have seen in his formative years. I made a special trip to Ossining, too, on account of John Cheever. I was decades behind both men, but no matter. It was just something I wanted to do. When this web thing got big, I couldn’t bring Cheever back from the dead, but I was able to check if Boyle would be reading anywhere near me.
The event occurred in LA, where I happened to be visiting. We arrived at the store, Skylight Books, a half hour early—a new record for me—and couldn’t find a seat, of which there were perhaps forty, arranged around a large ficus tree, the chairs and tree inside a corral of bookcases, as if the setting for some new book-worshipping cult (perhaps the only cult I’ve ever felt the urge to join). All in all, there were perhaps 80 worshipers in the temple.
Boyle started a few fashionable minutes late, introduced by his daughter. For the first fifteen minutes or so he didn’t read—it was more of a spiel. Think of the German pronunciation, which is appropriate, as there was some guy with a big camera lurking about, filming for Austrian television. I think Boyle would have been happy to carry on as such, half way to a stand-up routine, but he did break down eventually and read a short section from his new novel, The Women. (For content, buy the book; or check it out on tcboyle.com.) His reading style might be described as urgent, almost breathless. He performs, rather than merely reads, and more power to him. Fifty minutes after the scheduled start of the event we were waiting in line to have books signed, which was just right.
Note to self, I thought: keep it short. If you can, make it funny. Then stop. The performance, after all, promotes the thing; it’s not the thing itself. (For my appearances, check back in a month or so at scottlasserbooks.com, or go directly to my events page.)

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