Jonathan Lethem and the Bartender (Seattle, 10/26/09)
"The bartender …”
Up on a small stage in Ballard where bands usually play, novelist Jonathan Lethem has just solicited questions from a contented audience at the Sunset Tavern. Lethem sees a lithe arm held high out in the shadows where the stage lights don’t reach. The arm belongs to a woman whose name will turn out to be Holly. Holly is standing behind the bar.
"The bartender …” Lethem says.
His words have a faint question-mark scent. But if you were to get close enough and sniff deeply you’d realize that it wasn’t question mark at all. Just italics.
"The bartender …”
In a minute or so here, Holly the bartender and Lethem the author will transform this chronically stilted ritual — the book tour Q&A — into a recognizably human moment. But before that can happen, we need Holly’s question and Lethem’s answer.
"Who are your go-to, guilty-pleasure authors to read in your free time?"
"Well, I really resist the phrase ‘guilty pleasures’ because I think all pleasures are guilty. Or all guilt is pleasurable. Or something. I try to not think of it that way. But I definitely have writers that I go to, like when I’m getting on an airplane. And I just did that. I brought along Patricia Highsmith to read on the airplane and I just about finished one in the duration of the flight."
"Why?" Holly interjects.
"Why. Oh gosh. Because … because her guilt is so pleasurable.”
The audience laughs.
The evening’s moderator, book critic Paul Constant of The Stranger, joins in: “Which book was it?”
"I re-read The Blunderer,” Lethem says.
"Oh yeah,” Constant says with some hybrid of recognition and pleasure.
"An incredible book," Lethem continues. "She’s like, uh … What is she like? She’s like somewhere between Kafka and Hitchcock, which is like a dream, you know. It’s just perfect. And there are definitely others. Barbara Pym—
"You like the ladies."
It’s Holly again from behind the bar. Interjecting. Interrupting. Who knows at this point? Lethem ditches the list he was starting to make.
"Yeah, I do like the ladies,” he responds.
Big laughs now from the audience. We like this. We like Lethem. Some unknowable fraction of us like Holly, like the fact that the evening has deviated from the standard script.
"It’s really true that as a teenager I was totally guilty of reading all the guys. And that held through my twenties. For awhile, my favorite writers that I discovered in my twenties were like Delillo, Calvino, John Barth, Philip Roth. But pretty much all of like the last 10 or 15 years of my favorite writers that I discovered, it was like Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Highsmith, Barbara Pym, Anna Kavan, who you guys may have heard of. She’s really crazy. And there’s a few others that I’m blocking right now. But I’ve been really good at repairing the gender balance. Just out of pleasure principle, it’s happened that way.”
Holly, as I would later learn, has more that she’s curious to ask. But she senses that she’s at risk of dominating, of stealing questions from the paying customers, of annoying people. So she stops. Simple as that.
And I should stop, too. I could use the sleep I’m skipping to write this.
But before I do, I want to make clear what I mean by documenting all this. Or maybe it’s simpler to explain what I don’t mean.
I don’t mean that every book tour Q&A now needs questioners to follow up the answers they’re given with a “Why?” and a “You like the ladies.”
No, in my experience both as an audience member and as a star-struck questioner at these things, it’s not that the typical book fan should be asking three questions instead of one. It’s that he should be asking zero instead of one, especially if his question is aimed at impressing everyone with his erudition or at grasping — Kinbote-style — to get the author to validate some disquietingly personal interpretation of a book’s meaning.
If you doubt that these events can be fraught for audience, questioner, and author alike, just read Lethem’s 2005 essay "So Who Is Perkus Tooth, Anyway?" The essay starts like this: “I’m on stage, after giving a reading, blinking in confusion again at a question I’ve been asked by a member of the audience.”
In the end, the point of me writing this is just to savor, I guess. Because something spontaneous and authentic happened tonight: a fleeting conversation between a man on a stage and a woman behind a bar.
Lethem went with it. Holly went with it. We went with it. We laughed. Some of us got some new “ladies” to check out the next time we’re in a library or bookstore. And then it all stopped before it had a chance to grow stale and tiresome.
So yes. I’m savoring.