- Franklin Park Reading Series curator Penina Roth
On October 10, 2011, at Blake Butler's book launch party at Franklin Park, a West Virginia writer named Scott McClanahan
stepped up to the microphone and wowed the audience, blending short fiction with music, poetry and preaching. "It was," I wrote
at the time, "rousing, unifying, and unforgettable, less like a short-story reading than a sermon—less written in advance than passed down on the spot from some Holy Spirit of literature." As he walked around the room, he asked us with earnest urgency to join him again a year to the day, alive and not dead, alive and not dead...
Last night, a few days past the exact anniversary, McClanahan returned to the Franklin Park Reading Series. I brought friends this time. I had told one all about his past performance, talking it up so much I worried I had maybe oversold it. And then last night....
McClanahan opened by singing, a few warbled, garbled bars of the "Tennessee Waltz" in between incantations and anecdotes, his eyes closed as though in communion. Then he launched into a rhythmic and panted reading of "Jenny Sugar" from his Stories V!
—it was sort of hurried, the way the child narrator himself might read it—in which a boy's classmate dies, and he's glad to get the time off from schoolwork as his peers and teachers mourn. The story ends with the boy's mother promising she won't let anything bad happen to him, and the narrator calls her a fucking liar, but last night McClanahan asked us to pretend he was our mother, and he promised us the same thing before calling himself the fucking liar. Then he pulled out a digital recorder. "This is my multimedia presentation, as always," he said. It played the "Tennessee Waltz," and he pulled up members of the audience to dance with him, including a man. "Let me lead," McClanahan told him.
Then he wandered the room. "Pretend we will always love each other," he said, part of a sermon about death both comforting and terrifying. "That's the present. Enjoy it while it lasts." He brought himself close to tears; imagine the rest of us. The crowd was captivated, awed, deathly silent. No one even snapped pictures with their phone.
Later, he told me humbly that maybe he hadn't done a good job. But as he'd already said, he's a fucking liar.
The great A.M. Holmes, a New Yorker, read an excerpt from her latest novel, May We Be Forgiven
, a long passage about suburban madness, adultery and manslaughter. She was smart, slyly funny, a total pro. She even complimented the audience for being so enthusiastic, more than other crowds... like those in Seattle! To which the audience whooped.
Michael Kimball, introduced by Franklin Park curator Penina Roth as "a leading figure in the Baltimore literary scene," read passages from his well-received new novel Big Ray
; he flipped around a lot, telling the story of the narrator's dead father, an obese and abusive man. Drily comic, balancing, Roth said, the poignant and the funny, his reading included a superb selection of "Yo Daddy's So Fat" jokes. (When he goes to the movies, he sits next to everybody!)
Brooklyn resident and former editor at One Story
Marie-Helene Bertino read first, a hilarious story called "This is Your Will to Live" from her debut collection Safe as Houses
. In it, a lonely, lovely, witty woman deals with an irritable traveling salesman who offers her a talking head that tells a sob story—"would you like to buy my sob story?"—and bath salts that are "your will to live." Berino is one funny lady; appropriately, then, at the end of her reading she gave a dramatic bow.
Local favorite Emma Straub read from her new novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures
. It was lightly humorous, full of Straub's pretty prose. ("She didn't care about the mountains.") And Straub dressed the part. "I love the glamorous dress," Roth said, "that goes with the glamorous Hollywood story."
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart