On the Road with the Author
With characteristic wit and charm, Jonathan Lethem shared his thoughts and experiences in a series of diary entries written during his tour for Motherless Brooklyn.
St. Louis and Kansas City (October 30-31, 2000):
I’m in the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago, sitting on my king-size bed, watching Judge Judy on television. John Lydon of Public Image is defending himself against a wrongful termination lawsuit by a drummer from a recent tour. The Singer Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten is making lots of rude asides and getting a lot of scowly looks and warning fingers from Judge Judy, but the judge seems to be leaning towards throwing out the drummer’s suit.
My spaghetti with marinara is on the way up. Room Service in Chicago features the same menu–Maryland Crabcakes, Washington Lamb Chops Provencale, and Chilled Jumbo Pacific Shrimp–as those I’ve just sampled in Kansas City and St. Louis. The food-names seem a deliberate affront to geographic logic, or am I getting oversensitive? Three airports, three hotels, three cities in three days, and I’ve quickly been thrust back into that Cuisinart reality where my days resemble the cable television I watch each night to decompress and put myself to sleep, channels flipped until the boundaries blur, until Judge Judy and John Lydon begin to seem reasonable companions.
Maybe I’m going crazy, but I appear to be on booktour again. Yes, that’s it for sure. Tonight I’ll be at Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago, where like a Jumbo Pacific Shrimp I’ll be popped out of my generic shell of lodging comfort and travel discomfort, my bubble of Simpsons reruns and Cinnabuns, into the agreeably humble and sweet lap of local reality. Me and a bunch of booksellers and readers will resume our nightly love affair, which is delicate, and improvised, sometimes clumsy and always hugely real. It’s also never the same twice. That’s what’s so remarkable about booktouring: the rapid, almost strobe-like alternation between an infinity of repetitions and the impossibly unrepeatable.
Monday, in Saint Louis, for instance. The evening at Left Bank Books begins with a reading group presentation in the basement, which has been generously expanded from its usual base to include five or six members of a local Tourette’s Syndrome Association chapter–mostly parents of newly-diagnosed children, who, in my recent experiences as a sheepish recruit into Tourette’s advocacy, are the driving force of the movement, fierce and attentive as you’d expect parents to be. They also wish I’d written a book they could comfortably give to young children, but are too polite to say so. Also in attendance is a local librarian who distributes his own stunningly erudite ten-page Reader’s Guide to Motherless Brooklyn with subject headings including "How is Lionel’s Sex Life?" "Does Frank Minna have anything to do with Jesus Christ?" and "Are words tools or toys?" and a Further Reading list which mentions Elizabeth McCracken and Jimmy Breslin.
Then, upstairs, among the readers who wait in line for a signed book is a woman who says me she saw me two weeks ago at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where I introduced readings by Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje. "Oh, you happened to be in town, that’s nice," I say, but she corrects me–she travelled to New York for the reading, for the chance to see the two on the same stage. I’m humbled by the reminder of what riches New Yorkers take for granted, and at the uncorrupted passion for reading which can be so hard to glimpse from within the citadel of publishing, but so vibrantly evident when you’re on the road. No violence intended, but if my publisher’s sales force could tap this woman’s cerebro-spinal fluid and sneak it into the water supply–well, they’d do it, just on the chance that it worked like Mad Cow Disease.
The next night, in Kansas City on Halloween, Rainy Day Books has arranged a holiday gala: I’m the opening act for a showing of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in an elegant 1950’s church sactuary. After I satisfy a long-standing fantasy of being a film professor by using up half my time pontificating about Hitchcock, we settle in to watch the film, which is projected from a DVD onto a screen nearly dwarfed by a glowing stained glass window reading "LOVE". Well, Vertigo‘s about love of a sort. The film makes me weep, as it always does, but I’m also now struck that Kim Novak’s character’s makeover sequence was subliminal inspiration for Julia’s Minna’s backstory in Motherless Brooklyn ("He took the girl shopping for clothes in Manhattan . . . then, as an afterthought, he brought her to a salon on Montague Street, where they bleached her dark hair to platinum blond.") In this This-Is-Your-Life category at the signing are my uncles Gif and Don and my cousin Chris, all three with girlfriends, a nice triple date, and also an art dealer who’s spotted my name in the newspaper and remembers my father from his teaching days at the Kansas City Art Institute. I actually lived in Kansas City when I was four years old, though this bright-scrubbed industrial park of a city doesn’t remind me in any way of the old stone house in the basement of which my parents and I hid and watched The Monkees on a small black and white television during a tornado warning, one of my only Kansas City memories, I swear.
Then, in the car on the way back to my hotel my escort (that’s escort in the sense of "incredibly patient and useful local guide with a Mercedes", not "sex worker") casually stuns me with the tale of his wounding in Vietnam, the exit wound the size of a grapefruit, his two years of rehabilitation in a veteran’s hospital. This I’ll remember after the phone interviews and photo sessions and marathon warehouse signings have blurred and faded — though booktouring is largely a solipsistic activity, a rapid alternation, as I said, between self-aggrandizement and self-abnegation, the most vivid moments never seem to have anything to do with me or my book.
Hark. There’s room service with my marinara.
Snapshots from Chicago and Milwaukee (November 1-2, 2000):
1. After a live radio interview a woman who works for the station is waiting in the lobby. She’s never heard of me but listened to the interview just now and wants to shake my hand and tell me about her eighteen year-old son, who’s got Tourette’s and is seven feet tall. She has a sort of dazed look in her eyes. "He’d be, uh, hard to hide," I say, as sympathetically as I can.
2. Lunch in Chicago: Pringles and orange juice from the hotel minibar, during a phone interview, with most of the Pringles being ground into the carpet. Dinner in Chicago: lobster-avocado cocktail appetizer, squab tart entrZ?e, a two excellent bottles of white wine, all thanks to the hostly largesse of Alan and Amy from Random House. Booktouring in a nutshell, again: all highs and lows, with no middle in sight.
3. My escape route Thursday morning in Chicago is diverted by Gore’s motorcade pushing through the city, and when I return from my reading at Harry Schwartz’s bookstore in Milwaukee, I switch on the TV to discover that Bush is in town too, answering questions about drunk driving. I realize I’m touring swing states, and as I fall asleep I see the scroll at the bottom of CNN’s screen: Bush 47%, Gore 44%, Nader 5%, Buchanan 1%, Essrog 0.00001%.
4. I’m not the only one working the margins of this campaign. In the seat directly behind me on the flight from Milwaukee is Al Sharpton, who suddenly strikes me as a perfect midpoint between James Brown and Captain Kangaroo. He’s seated in the emergency exit row and agrees to the responsibilities this position entails. I eavesdrop on his cell phone calls as he systematically and (I suspect) routinely threatens to fire his entire staff.
The New School, New York City (November 3, 2000):
My fifth city in five nights is my own, yet it’s here I’m given a break from reading from my own work. Instead I’m introducing and interviewing Haruki Murakami at the New School auditorium on 12th Street. After a cab from LaGuardia home to Brooklyn and a shower and shave in my own bathroom I scribble my introductory remarks while riding the F Train into Manhattan to pick up Murakami and his wife at their midtown hotel where we take one glance at the line for cabs and Haruki suggests the subway instead. I’m sorry if you had to read that sentence twice but that’s the way this day feels–no time for breath or punctuation. We’re welcomed into the "Green Room" (somehow my own readings never involve a "Green Room", but I’m not bitter, no, not me) by New School Writing Program maven and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito as well as a bunch of the shining young faces who make the Vintage publicity department such a marvel of efficiency and charm. Haruki and I poke our head through the curtain and spy on the crowd: the New School’s art deco auditorium is packed, wall-to-wall–Polito will later tell me it’s more than five hundred people.
The reading and on-stage interview are a pure delight, and for the duration of them I forget my exhaustion completely. At Haruki’s request he and I tag-team read the story: he reads a few pages in English, then switches to Japanese, then turns it over to me. Murakami’s words feel a lot fresher coming out of my mouth than Motherless Brooklyn at this point, and the story is full of laugh-lines and gross-out shocks. Then we move to a table with two microphones and conduct an odd, halting, and very funny interview. I’ve been warned about his reserve in talking about his work, particularly in English, but in fact he works the crowd like a Japanese Roberto Begnini. I’m hung out to dry a couple of times, but I’m a willing straight man–playing constant straight man to Lionel Essrog for the last year has me in good practice.
Afterwards, dinner with Murakami and Polito and the writer Mary Morris and each of our significant others. Wonderful, but not a part of my tour, and, actually, none of your business.
New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire (November 4, 2000):
Tonight only masquerades as a tour stop–though it’s included in the sheaf of itinerary prepared by my master handlers at Vintage, and I’ll be reading aloud from Motherless Brooklyn, in every real sense I’ve dropped off the grid of airports and hotels and media dates, into something relatively timeless, delicate, and difficult to write about here. Tonight in Henniker is the opening reception for my father’s ten-year retrospective exhibition of his paintings, an event which has been on my calendar for six months. I’ve taken it as an excuse to ask Vintage to rent me a car and book the next few dates in Maine and Massachusetts, and to stay with my father and then with friends instead of in hotels. Nothing against escorts, but for a few days I’m going to escort myself.
The New England College event is a major high spot in my father’s recent career, and I’d meant to leave it to him alone. Then the curator invited me to write an essay for his catalogue and I agreed, which became a first step towards accepting–with my dad’s encouragement–the English Department’s invitation to read in conjunction with the opening reception. So here I am, in my sixth town in six nights, running on fumes but sustained, in this case, by the extraordinary one-of-a-kind novelty and honor of the thing. It’s a bit like the Murakami occasion the night before, actually, in that I’ll be working someone else’s crowd instead of my own. Except, of course, this is my dad. The show itself, two luminous gallery levels filled with oil paintings, gouaches, and paintings on paper, I won’t try to describe, but it’s incredibly moving to see so much of my dad’s work pulled out of the gloom and dinge of his studio and storage spaces and mounted against clean white walls, and to see crowds of friends and family filling the rooms.
Eventually the largest gallery is filled with a semi-circle of chairs, and I’m placed at a podium in front of the largest of my father’s paintings, which depicts the suicide of the poet John Berryman amidst a swirling maelstrom of symbolic objects in a sea of brown and red. First I read my two-page statement from the catalogue, then a few pages from the novel–I try to pull out a sort of ‘gallery’ of moments from the book, portraits and landscapes and grotesques which resonate particularly with my father’s work. Afterwards, as we gather for dinner with some old family friends, someone mentions that the colors of my shirt receded into the textures of the painting behind me, so that as I spoke my head seemed to be floating, just one more object lost in that chaotic sea. I can’t think of anything more perfectly appropriate than that.
Sunday’s a day off, spent in Maine, watching videos and reading the Times. Monday, election eve, Boston. Stay tuned.
"I Demand a Recount"
Brookline, Massachusetts (November 6, 2000):
Monday in Boston. A nice night. Brookline Booksmith is an elegant bookstore, and the room is packed full of people I’d like for friends, including the reader with whom I share the bill, Thisbe Nissen. I wish I’d been as relaxed as Thisbe, the first time I published. We both draw a lot of laughs and intelligent questions, and sign a lot of books. This is how a book tour should be. And I assume, how it will be again on Wednesday, after a time-out for the election. Sure, why not?
Election night is spent with old friends in Easthampton, Massachusetts, four couples sitting around a television eating takeout Chinese and sushi and making loud fun of Dan Rather’s hands, which seem to be manipulating and tweaking the various states on his desktop monitor, particularly the throbbing blue peninsula of Florida. "I’m going there next week," I say to no one in particular. We’re happy the state is throbbing blue, having accepted the dogma that the state is crucial for a Gore electoral victory.
Florida. Electoral. Crucial. How young we were then, how carefree and innocent and young, with no boils on our faces.
Chad is a country in Africa.
Denial is a river in Egypt.
The evening drags on, the couples drop out, one by one. I’m the last awake, a narrative junkie to the end. This has nothing to do with politics anymore, and everything to do with why I watch even the rottenest movies and television shows to the credit roll. My brain is wired for story. At 2:30 I fall asleep, sure it’s Bush. The next morning–but you know where this story goes. Nowhere.
Wednesday morning I give a talk to Professor David Lenson’s (author of On Drugs) undergraduate class on dystopian novels at U. Mass. It’s nice to talk about Amnesia Moon instead of Motherless Brooklyn, especially to a bunch of smart flattering kids who’ve been reading it in the context of Brave New World and We and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Then, in the evening, a reading at Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley, to a small crowd of hardy souls as hungover from the non-election as I am. There’s no point pretending it isn’t on our minds, so I play anchorman, and interrupt my own reading for "breaking news" a couple of times: "Gore 260, Bush 245!"
Big laugh. Very funny. Oh, very funny.
The Macallan Gold Dagger Award,
or "Some Name-Dropping and Boasting about a Dagger"
London, England (November 10, 2000):
Now comes the weird part. I’m plucked up by some unseen force–a force both merciful and sadistic, I think, in different ways–and jerked out of the twin continuums, the twin sled-dog-races, of my tour and the election saga. The force is manifest as an innocuous e-mail from my British publisher, Faber & Faber. "You’ve probably won this award called the Macallan Gold Dagger for fiction," they tell me. "The winner is announced at an afternoon banquet on Friday. You might want to come to London to pick it up. We think it would be a good idea. We’ll pay your airfare and accommodations."
That’s the way to tempt someone away from a book tour: free plane tickets and hotel rooms, oh boy!
But Macallan is my favorite single malt scotch (that’s "favorite single-malt-scotch", not "favorite-single malt-scotch", and I don’t have a favorite double-malt-scotch, so don’t ask), and after they tell me that the Gold Dagger has previously gone to Ruth Rendell and Eric Ambler–it’s more or less England’s equivalent of the Edgar Award–I decide it’s good enough for me. Never mind the hotel room, though; the only way to squeeze this trip in is to leave Thursday night at eleven and come back on an evening flight from London on Friday.
After a hurried Thursday night reading at Barnes and Noble in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan–not my best, I’m afraid, a bit distracted–I take a car to JFK. The flight is, happily, almost empty, but among my fellow travelers is Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, moving inside a large and jolly posse of bandmates or bodyguards. I can tell it’s Flavor Flav because, you know, he’s got an unusually big clock on a chain around his neck. Again, I realize I need to add the words no kidding to this account. If I were a liar, which I’m not, I’d claim to have seen the moment mid-flight when Flavor Flav adjusted his clock for the time-zone difference. I didn’t see it, though. I was asleep.
England is a blur, a pulp, an oasis. British banquet meals are pretty much like American ones, but there is a bracing dash of Macallan scotch in the chocolate dessert. And Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate of England, is seated with me at Faber’s table. I do take the Gold Dagger. It comes with a bottle of Macallan ten-year, and is, when I examine it, exactly a gold dagger, with a fairly sharp point. Everyone’s very nice to me, which is probably easy or hard for them depending on their feelings about meeting babbling, sleep-deprived American morons who’ve taken away a proper British award. I have just enough time in London for a twenty-minute walk from the banquet hall to Faber’s offices: yup, this sure is London. Then a glass of champagne with my editor, Walter Donohue, and then a car back to the airport.
At Heathrow I surrender the Gold Dagger to security. They wrap in it several layers of bubble wrap and a neon-orange envelope which says "Controlled Item" and throw it in the hold. When, seven hours later, the envelope comes tumbling down the baggage chute at JFK, a sore thumb amidst the lookalike brown and black luggage, I hear some know-it-all security guard whisper to his friend: "That’s a gun." I want to correct him–It’s a dagger, I imagine myself hissing like a character from A Coffin For Dimitrios–but I really just don’t have the energy.
New York City and Philadelphia (November 11-13, 2000):
I’m in the stretch run. Sunday night’s reading is in Manhattan’s KGB Bar, with Jonathan Franzen–bill it as the ‘come and learn to tell them apart’ gig. Franzen’s just finished a a long and ambitious novel he’s been working on for many years now–evidence of its gorgeous prose and caustic humor has crept into view in Harper’s a couple of times. He reads from it tonight, brilliantly well. Wanting to make my end of the bill equally special, and having read from Mothless Brook at KGB twice before–including a reading a year ago which I declared, heedlessly, was my "last ever" from the book, and at the end of which I gave away my specially-annotated, reading-aloud-from copy to a fan–I’m inspired to air out a few first-draft pages from my work-in-progress. The new book’s voice is utterly different from Brotherless Mooks, and I’m pretty slow finding a rhythm, but by the end I think I’ve persuaded myself and a few others. The response is warm, anyway. Ironically, after finding KGB a pretty chilly and competitive place to read, the first few times I did it, I’ve turned it into a kind of home-field-advantage place by coming back so often.
Tuesday night, at a Border’s in downtown Philadelphia, comes the ambush.
When I turned Monotonous Bookling in to my editor two years ago, having written a whole novel centered on Tourette’s Syndrome without once consulting with either a medical expert or a patient, I braced myself for censure. The book was too irreverent and silly, I thought, not to draw fire from incensed defenders of the dignity of those for whom Tourette’s wasn’t, you know, a joke? Those who had to live with it every day? But it never happened. Time after time I’d see someone ticcing quietly in the audience during a reading and be sure they were ready to call down thunder on my head for dallying with their affliction, only to find–I swear!–that they wanted to shake my hand and thank me. More than that, I was welcomed into the fold of Tourette’s advocacy by the firebrand activist Sue Levi-Pearl, one of the founders and pillars of the National Tourette’s Association. With her imprimatur on my forehead I was sent out to do readings for local groups, and began to fancy myself not only an expert, but also an all-around upstanding guy.
Not so in Philadephia. Here, at the end of a year-long run, it finally happens, long after I’d stopped expecting it: I’m ambushed during the Q and A. Two members of the audience have come not to praise, but to bury me. They’ve waited through my reading, trembling in indignation the whole while, for a chance to tell me I’m not so great after all. The guy –a lawyer?–says he "represents two people with Tourette’s", and that I ought to be ashamed of myself. The woman, full of righteous sarcasm, asks: "What’s next–epilepsy?" Neither, when I ask, has read Moronic Brooding. I mumble and stutter through an explanation, which is actually pretty much identical to the reply I always give to the standard questions about "Why Tourette’s?" and "How did you do your research?", which is to say I don’t really defend myself at all, because the book either works or it doesn’t, but isn’t in any sense "defensible" either way.
My exhaustion collaborates usefully with my astonishment in keeping my reply bland and unexcited: I can’t quite believe this is happening and I’m too tired to get aroused if it is. I just sort of talk to them until they go away, which they do. And of course, by the logic of these sorts of things, the moment after they stage their walk-out, I get a long gushy testimony from another woman in the audience: "I just want to say, I have read the book, and I love Lionel, and I love you!" The crowd wants to rescue me now, and I quite shamelessly permit it.
The truth, though, is that if I had become aroused, it would have been to join their walkout. The protesters spruced up a generic tour stop more than they could ever have guessed. I’m sick of Motiveless Breathing and Lionel Essrog and his lousy Syndrome. He’s objectionable, a bad travelling partner, a bore. I feel like Dean Martin at the end of his long partnership with Jerry Lewis: get me away from this guy, please, he’s not funny anymore! You’re right, I’m a bad person, I should never have written this book! Take me to Tourette’s Jail!
"Last Notes From Not-Quite-Home-Yet"
Tallahassee and Miami (November 11-13, 2000):
1. Okay, I’m better now. I’ll be okay. And Lionel’s fine, he’s wonderful, we’re friends again. I’m just going to quit appearing in public with him for a while, we both need a rest. Don’t worry.
2. More name-dropping: Wednesday I’m in Tallahassee, where I’m reading for Mark Winegardner (author of the forthcoming Crooked River Burning, a novel with a great big heart), who teaches at F.S.U. He picks me up from the airport and we go into the middle of town, to a café beside the capital building, for beer and chicken wings. The television is on, CNN, showing Warren Christopher giving a live impromptu press conference in reaction to that morning’s ruling. After Warren Christopher goes off-camera CNN switches back to the command center for a response from some other commentators. Then the door to the café swings open and four old guys in suits take the table next to us. One of them is Warren Christopher. Mark and I sit eating our wings and watching the response to Warren Christopher’s comments alongside Warren Christopher, who is also watching, and eating a sandwich. David Boies, a lawyer for the Gore team, asks Warren Christopher if he wants his fries. Warren Christopher says go ahead, help yourself.
3. The 101 stories I didn’t tell you: introducing Samuel Delany at a reading at the New School. Meeting Robert Olen Butler (a collector of vintage watches, he admired mine). The grilled-chicken club sandwich. The reading at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, where I met a girl whose parents lived in a commune with my father in 1975. The room-service guy who walked in on me naked in Milwaukee. The other grilled-chicken club sandwich. Talking all night with Stewart O’Nan and Mark Winegardner, two of the best-read writers I’ve ever met. The flight on the eight-seater, two-propeller airplane with another passenger who is blind and has a German Shepherd guide-dog which sat neatly at his feet, and the flight attendant who leaned in to tell the captain: "The dog is fully stowed." The other other grilled-chicken club sandwich.
4. Don’t think I don’t know how lucky I am.
5. The last stop is the Miami Book Fair–yes, I’ve been back and forth to Florida twice this fateful week, but in Miami, unlike Tallahassee, there isn’t much sign of the election. Florida is warm, I notice. Everyone is wearing short sleeves except me. I may be very tired at this point. I read with Michael Chabon, who has the support of several charming old Florida ladies claiming to be his aunts. One of them buys my book too.
6. Really, it’s all going to be fine. I’ll see you next time, and thanks, thanks more than I can say, really. Really.