Sam Lipsyte @ Vroman’s Bookstore; Pasadena, CA

March 12, 2013

The thing about John Peel is, the more you click around the Internet, the more you find references to eclectic bands he “championed” during his long, illustrious career as a DJ for BBC Radio 1. Hell, his own Wikipedia page uses variations of the word “champion” four times. Saying that John Peel championed a band is the epitome of hyperbole. It’s like calling something “the best.” Or, in my case, it’s like saying so-and-so “is my hero.”

Last night, novelist and short story writer Sam Lipsyte was in Pasadena reading from his new collection of stories, The Fun Parts, at Vroman’s Bookstore. I raced over there after work and caught the second half of the reading. Afterwards, Lipsyte answered a number of questions from the small crowd of maybe thirty folks who had gathered upstairs to hear him speak. The evening concluded with a book signing.

A couple years ago a high school friend of mine who shall remain nameless (you can read a horrible interview I conducted with her about our sexual activities here) asked for my mailing address. She had read a book called Home Land, and she said it reminded her of something I might write. She said, specifically, the word combinations the author — a guy named Sam Lipsyte — used to depict women and sex could have been my own. When the book arrived, I cruised through it. I loved it. It was the most refreshing, fun book I’d read in a very long time. I purchased Lipsyte’s first book The Subject Steve and a collection of short stories called Venus Drive. The former was great (although personally I liked Home Land more) and the latter was remarkable. In fact, Venus Drive was so perfectly written it inspired me to start writing short stories for the first time since college. In particular, the story that concluded the collection struck a chord. “Less Tar,” it’s called. It’s a memory of a dead parent, a cancer memoir written by a son mourning the loss of his mother. It contains the most brutal passage ever about how when the son was a child he tried everything in his power to get his mom to stop smoking. He’d even ask for it when his parents asked what he wanted for his birthday. And I used to do the exact same thing when I was young. I would make these elaborate, colorful wish-lists of birthday gifts for my parents, and number one would always be, “Dad Stop Smoking.” When I read that story, “Less Tar,” I almost broke down crying. After two novels and a collection of amazing short stories, Sam Lipsyte was officially entered in the annals of “Evan’s heroes.”

I was moved enough to write Lipsyte a letter. I never do that. But, I figured, he teaches at Columbia…he’s got to read his e-mail, right? I didn’t know if the address I found would work, or if what I said would capture how inspired I was by these stories I was reading, but I figured I’d try. I told him about the girl and Home Land, about the note she stuck in the front of the book that said, “You two are the same person.” I said…well, I said a lot. Reading the message back right now I’m almost embarrassed by how personal I was. In just three paragraphs I pretty much said I hated my life, my job, my relationship, and my lack of drive. But I wanted advice.

It took less than a week, but he responded. He gave no-frills, honest advice and recommended more reading material: Airships (Barry Hannah), Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy), Firework (Eugene Marten), and a few others. I didn’t respond again, but I appreciated the gesture more than words could express.

So as I’m standing there last night in the back of the room listening to this literary hero of mine reading, I’m trying to think of things I can say when I approach him afterwards that will let him know how much I appreciate both his coming to LA for a reading/signing AND for his complete oeuvre. Once he’d completed his reading, and once he’d answered questions from the audience — some of which were borderline insane, like the older woman who basically told him she didn’t like his writing — I had my chance.

The guy in front of me spoke about some pictures that appeared in recent news articles of Lipsyte in his old punk band from the early ’90s. I tried not to listen to the back-and-forth because I was going over my lines in my head. When it was my turn to approach Sam, book in hand, something compelled me to shift gears. I started by asking about his old band, and whether any recordings existed. He said yes, but they were locked away.

“So, can you sign this one to [name withheld]. I used to fool around with her in high school, and after a long period of not speaking to one another she mailed this book to me. She said that the way you wrote about women and sex reminded her of me. I don’t think she meant it as a compliment, but I took it as one. Anyway, I figure sending it back to her signed and personalized after three or four years would be quite a surprise. It’s the least I can do for introducing me to your writing. ”

He laughed, then we spoke a bit longer about his old band, writing and how grateful I was for his coming to LA for this, and that I couldn’t wait to read the new stories. We shook hands and I departed.

That’s a lie.

In a perfect world, that’s how it might have gone down. But, alas, for that to have happened I would have to be somebody else, as I’m as socially cool and collected as Francium is stable.

I don’t remember what inane bullshit I blurted at him, but it was entirely fucked up, confusing, stutter-y variation of my planned “speech.” My mangled, ruinous story must have mixed tenses or something, because I distinctly remember him saying to me, “Well you’ll have to let me know if it’s true once you read it.”

Instead of correcting him and saying, “Wait. Huh? No! I’ve already read it — twice!” I think I just said, “Okay. Heh” and walked away with my hands in my pockets. Why clarify? In all likelihood I sounded like a budding Mark David Chapman and it was better to cut myself off and slink on home than stand around saying “Duh…Um…Uh…” That was it. That was my chance to chat briefly with a hero of mine, and I turned all blubbering idiot on him.

I guess this is why, when assigned to write a personal response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay in college, I handed in a one-sentence paper that simply stated, “I write because I cannot speak.”

Mark Lane – Mystery Hero [MP3]

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