Lit Reactor - Max Booth III - November 18, 2015
Last month, Eryk Pruitt asked me if I'd be willing to attend a book reading in Dallas. I told him I'd heavily consider it, but only if the reading fell on a Saturday. Dallas is a five hour drive from San Antonio, and it's extremely difficult to get someone to cover my night shifts at the hotel. As it turned out, the only day the reading could possibly take place was a Thursday, so I respectfully declined his offer. Then he told me Joe R. Lansdale would be reading that night, too, so I said, "Well, all right, I guess I don't have a choice now, but fair warning: I am going to steal Lansdale's wallet."
"Sure," Eryk said, "that's understandable."
The reading would be the first Noir at the Bar event held in Dallas, and I couldn't have been more honored to attend it. I'd heard of Noir at the Bars in the past, but had never read up too much about them. I won't get too detailed into explaining its history, because our very own Keith Rawson has already done so much better than I ever could. But basically, imagine a bunch of crime authors gathered in a bar reading things that give us all bonoirs (a phase I'm shamelessly stealing from Jedidiah Ayres)
I had never done a public reading before. Okay, I'd done one, but I don't know how much walking around the streets of Chicago, screaming the text from my novel's copyright page counts as a "public reading". So, I had never done an official public reading. The idea alone paralyzed my body with nervousness. I'm not exactly the most social person, and the thought of standing up in front of a crowd of strangers and reading something I'd written felt absolutely terrifying. But man. Joe fuckin' Lansdale. I couldn't say no. Could you?
THE ROAD TO DALLAS
Last Wednesday (November 11, 2015), I clocked in at my hotel gig at 11:00 PM and proceeded to work for the next eight hours. After I left at 7:00 AM, I drove home, helped get the kids ready for school, then dropped my girlfriend off at work. I went back home, showered, then drove down the street to my bank and deposited my paycheck. The bank teller took one look at me and said, "Wow, you look exhausted. You work the night shift, right?" I nodded and he told me to go get some sleep. I laughed and told him sleep was a conspiracy pushed by mattress salesmen. I left the bank, got back in my car, and began the five hour drive to Dallas. Along the way, I listened to an audiobook of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects. I stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere and refilled my tank at a truck stop that offered "THE BEST BBQ IN THE WORLD!". Outside the truck stop, an elderly man sat on a rocking chair singing country music. I have seen far too many horror movies to know any lingering on my part would have resulted with my flesh cooked and sold to the locals
Noir at the Bar would be hosted at a tiny bookstore/bar called The Wild Detectives (holy shit, what a great name), which resides in the Bishop Arts District for those familiar with the area. When I say tiny, I mean the shop is literally just a house. The buildings surrounding it are actual residences. You do not understand how much I envy the people who live here. Although, to be fair, if I lived next to a place like The Wild Detectives, I would have to maintain a second job to support the amount of books and booze I would be buying on a daily basis.
I arrived at The Wild Detectives a little past 3:00 PM, which happened to be the exact time I woke up the previous day (my sleep schedule is typically 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM). Driving down to Dallas, my plan was to take a nap in my car once I made it there. Of course, by the time I hit my twenty-four hour mark, I was on my second wind, so I walked into the shop and browsed their awesome book selection, then bought a cup of coffee and sat outside in the backyard on one of their picnic tables. I busted out my Chromebook and worked on some writing. An hour passed, and Eryk Pruitt (author of Dirtbags and Hashtag) and Jedidiah Ayres (author of Fierce Bitches and Peckerwood) showed up. I would like to say both of these men are wonderful human beings, but you and I both know that isn't true. After our introductions, Eryk stared me down and asked what was really on his mind.
"You weren't, uh, serious when you told me you planned to steal Joe Lansdale's wallet…right?"
And I stared him right back down and said, "I was absolutely serious."
"You do realize he is a martial arts expert, right? He will murder you."
"I once murdered someone," Jedidiah Ayres whispered.
"I'm willing to take my chances," I said. "I didn't drive all the way down here without any sleep to not steal Lansdale's wallet."
Eryk sighed. "Booth, you're a crazy sonofabitch. I ought to kiss you."
So we kissed, and it was good.
Meanwhile, Jedidiah continued whispering something that involved "lots of blood" and "loud, agonizing squealing", but who knows what he meant.
THE WILD DETECTIVES
The reading didn't begin until 7:00 PM. At around 6:30, my stomach started twisting and turning something awful. I had been awake over twenty-seven hours and I was definitely feeling it. Plus, I'd barely eaten anything all day. The logical thing might've been to go grab something light to snack on before the reading, but food sounded like the worst thing in the world at the time. Instead, I walked down the street and proceeded to down two coke & whiskeys within the span of five minutes. I stumbled back to The Wild Detectives and ordered a beer, thinking there was no way in hell I could actually do this reading. I finished my beer and ordered another. At this point, everything started getting real warm and fuzzy. The bookstore was filling with people eager to witness me fail, and the manager, Carlos, was finishing setting everything up.
Noir at the Bar started and I'd lost my chance to escape the building undetected. David Hale Smith was our host for the night, and let me tell ya, he did one hell of a job introducing the event. First up to read was Scott Montgomery, best known for MysteryPeople. He offered up a short little tale that eased my nerves slightly. His story entertained and got more than a few laughs. Afterward, Rod Davis read an excerpt from his intriguing book, South, America, followed by the poet, Opalina Salas, who read a poem titled "I Like the Poets Who Are Raw", with Chris Curiel backing up the piece with his magnificent trumpet. Her performance blew me away, and I was still in awe when Eryk suddenly introduced me and motioned for me to stand up.
Vomit fought to free itself from my mouth, but I resisted and forced it back down my throat.
I stood and approached the microphone. I had never spoken into one of these alien artifacts before, so of course I spoke waaaay too low at first. After an extremely awkward introduction on my part, I pulled out my story and got to work. I read the crowd an excerpt from a book I'm currently writing about a hotel night auditor slowly going insane. I don't really remember too much about my own performance. I kinda blacked out during it, but I do think a few people laughed, so hey, my guidance counselor was wrong about me being a complete failure after all
After my reading, Eryk Pruitt showed us all how Noir at the Bar was meant to be done and read us a story about a Texan in Ireland getting involved in an underground fight club. Harry Hunsicker followed next with a great short story from the Clive Cussler-edited anthology, Thriller 2.
Next up: Jedidiah Ayres, who hadn't laughed a single time all night. In fact, he had just sat there and rocked back and forth, mumbling something none of us could hear. He didn't even acknowledge Eryk when he called him up to read. Eryk ended up walking across the room and shaking him until he became alert. A few more minutes passed and Jedidiah finally stood and approached the mic. He groaned loudly and slapped himself across the face, then read a story called "Hoosier Daddy", which is without a doubt one of the craziest tales I've ever heard read live. At one point, he started moaning in orgasmic joy and spanking his ass. It was very poetic.
And who better to close out the night than Joe R. Lansdale, the legend himself? As Lansdale read from his Hap & Leonard story collection, all I could do was sit there, within arm's reach of him, and further plot what I had come down here to do. Maybe Eryk was right, maybe his martial arts background would kick in and he'd murder the crap out of me. But maybe, just maybe I would be slick enough to successfully pickpocket the best writer in the world.
Eventually, the reading ended and the crowd exploded
Exploded into applause, I mean. Sorry, that was kind of weird to end the sentence like that. But man, how much more exciting would this article be if the crowd literally exploded? You wouldn't have expected that shit at all.
The night continued with us all mingling throughout the bookshop, talking to various members of the crowd. Then, quite suddenly, Lansdale approached me and shook my hand.
"Nice piece," he said, and I thought, Now's my chance! Give him a hug and steal his wallet. This is what you've been working for. Don't fucking blow it!
I could imagine it all going so smoothly. I'd say something like, "I don't shake hands, I shake bodies!" and wrap my arms around him and give him a nice strong squeeze, then as he was recovering from my superhuman strength, I'd reach two fingers down his back pocket and slip his wallet out. It never occurred to me that he might keep his wallet someplace else. The plan required the wallet to be in his back right pocket. I also never quire figured out what I would do with the wallet once it was in my possession. I never intended on spending any of his money. I think I just wanted to be the person who successfully pickpocketed the great Joe R. Lansdale.
But instead of following my dreams, all I could do was stand there awkwardly and mumble, "Uh, thank you."
Then he was gone, along with his wallet.
THE TERRIFYING DRIVE HOME
It was past 10:00 PM at this point and I'd been awake over thirty hours. Disappointed in my cowardice, I told everybody good night and began the very long drive back to San Antonio. I thought it'd be a slice of cake. Sure, I was tired, but the adrenaline would keep me awake for the length of my trip. Maybe a half hour to an hour later, I realized how fucking stupid that train of thought had been, and pulled over in a truck stop. I turned the car off and leaned the seat back and passed out for exactly fifteen minutes. Maybe I was too paranoid that someone would try to kill me, or more likely, I had developed a superpower that allowed my body to only require fifteen minutes of sleep for every day-and-a-half of being awake. Refreshed, I slid the keys into the ignition and turned, only to immediately begin crying at the sound of the starter clicking at me. Somehow, my battery was dead.
The truck stop parking lot was mostly empty, and the few guys hanging around weren't the sort I wanted to approach. So, lacking zero knowledge about cars, I called up my roadside assistance and explained the situation. They asked where I was, to which I responded, "Good question!" I sprinted through the parking lot, freezing my ass off, and found one of the truck stop clerks standing outside smoking a cigarette.
"Excuse me," I said, "could you tell me where I am?"
The guy took a long drag from his cigarette. "You're in Italy, man."
"What the fuck?"
Of course, at the time, I had no idea such a place as "Italy, Texas" even existed. I thought for a moment I was dreaming, or at the very least trapped inside a David Lynch film. The roadside assistance operator said they'd have someone out to my location within a couple hours, so I returned to my car and tried to start it again and it roared to life without any issues. Huh, I thought, how 'bout that.
I called back and canceled my roadside assistance request and returned to the highway, no longer even slightly tired. Luckily, that was the last of my troubles and I made it home without further incident.
Ha-ha! Obviously that isn't true.
An hour or so after leaving the truck stop, I-35 decided to shut down for construction. And, being the biggest idiot in the world, I somehow missed the original detour sign as I was redirected off the highway. You have to realize something: I am extremely bad at directions. I once get lost walking around my subdivision. I am the last person you want to rely on for getting you somewhere. A baby fresh out of the womb would have better luck guiding you to your destination. So when I say that I spent the next three hours attempting to return to I-35, I am not exaggerating. For three hours, I drove aimlessly through isolated, Texas Chainsaw-style I'm-gonna-fuck-you-with-my-dead-pig's-dick country farmland. I can't even call them roads. More like narrow gravel paths barely wide enough for my tiny Hyundai Accent to fit on. I won't lie, I was terrified. I'd been awake for nearly forty hours. I couldn't think straight. I was surrounded by darkness. Darkness and many, many cows.
At one point, I found a Holiday Inn and asked the night auditor how to get back on the highway. The night auditor, who looked bizarrely like myself, just shrugged and pointed south. I asked him if he could be more specific and he said, "San Antonio is that way!" then stormed away. This was not real. None of this was real. The night auditor was my doppelganger and this hotel existed in an alternate reality. Somewhere, I was back at The Wild Detectives, still shaking Joe Lansdale's hand and debating stealing his wallet. If I went through with the theft, would I still be lost? How would my life be different right now?
If not for the fact that my girlfriend was still awake back home and able to call and walk me through the path back to the highway, I'm fairly confident I would still be lost somewhere on the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I pulled into my garage just after 5:00 AM.
Here is what I learned: reading to an audience is actually a lot of fun, and driving on I-35 in the middle of the night is an absolute fucking nightmare.