April 28, 2010 by David Gillaspie
Go to a book reading just to see if it lives up to expectations. A romance writer might have candles. A crime writer might wear a trench coat. The one before last night was Greg Olson talking about his book. He wrote about a married woman who had an affair with a married youth pastor in their church who then killed his wife.
Horrible stuff. The wife told her husband about it five years later, maybe six. Hubby found out the pastor had affairs with many of the church ladies. One of the ladies knew the pastor had killed his wife and cut a deal that put the man in jail.
I went the reading for the same reason I go to any reading: can a writer carry the room better than a guitar player singing a song?
I know, it’s a high standard. Greg Olson had the man and wife with him at his reading, which was creepy enough with the interplay between the three of them at the podium.
On the way out I said something to the husband like “keep it going, man” or something encouraging. The guy got up from the signing table and walked with me a few steps before he told me to pray for the author, that he needed prayers.
What did he mean? Who knows. After hearing about the pastor having an affair with his mother in law after he killed his wife I was ready to run. Why? I took my mother in law with me to the reading. She wears a hearing aid. She asked what the author said about the pastor’s mother in law. I told he I didn’t hear it either.
When does a reading become a low-grade freak show?
It wasn’t last night when Willy Vlautin opened his new book Lean On Pete at the downtown Portland Powell’s. No incense or candles. No actors or props. Just a guy who looked like he just got off the bus from Scappoose.
He didn’t dress up or down, he came in like he was on the way to someplace else. He read sections of Lean on Pete and got a big hand afterward from a crowd of older-guy types and ladies with so much hair it won’t stay down on their head; a crowd of younger-guy types marking time before it’s their turn to talk and read.
Willy did it the way you hope to hear it. He let the words do the work; he let the book sell itself. What looked like over a hundred people sat and stood in respect to his reading. No set up, no pomp or circumstances, just a guy reading a book he wrote wearing the clothes he wrote it in.
Afterward I found the new novel section in the store and started reading first lines out of everyone I picked up. I tested my writer theory on an older guy passing through. He’d heard Willy. I asked him if he wrote books like Willy. He said he wasn’t a writer, but he was lying.
Why do writers lie? This guy knew he wouldn’t get a book out of himself to read. Or a short story or poem. He looked like he’d been trying. And he looked afraid. That’s the sad thing about older-guy writers. They’re afraid, afraid of running out of time, running out of health, running out of sanity.
That’s where they miss the whole thing. Willy said it best when he told the crowd he writes what he writes to figure out how things get to the point of no return, but somehow return; said he writes to keep from going crazy. The older-guy writer is afraid of going crazy, of doing the unbecoming, of embarrassing themselves.
The old guys in the audience listened to Willy Vlautin stand up and say things that would make them cower and ask for forgiveness. They heard Willy read from Lean On Pete and wished they were brave enough to write something they could get behind. But they’re afraid. And they’re happy to let Willy live that part of their dream life for them.
Last night was a celebration of identity theft as a younger man showed Portland’s readers and writers how it’s done. He peeled off a layer of uncertainty like calming a spooked horse before a race. If that’s not enough to get the sweater wearing beards and jean jacketed toughies to write, what is?
Willy Vlautin challenged the women, the young sleek women looking for their bad boy story, the middle aged women remembering theirs, to get down and write them. Now is a good time.