Is it worth getting there early? I thought to myself. It’s obvious that as far as our cultural landscape goes, the anticipation for a book’s release pales in comparison to that of an album or film, at least in terms of popularity. But even among my set of bookish friends, Jim Shepard’s name brings only dim flickers of recognition, which means slim chances of finding someone to tag along with me for the night’s reading. Since the reading was in Brooklyn and I was working in Midtown, heading back to my apartment Uptown didn’t strike me as a viable option. At least an early arrival promised a good seat and a way to avoid lingering at the office. There was still a chance I could run into somebody down there in Fort Greene; an opportunity to wash away the day’s impersonal interactions among co-workers.
After a bumpy subway ride and a quick stop to scarf down a slice from Not Ray’s, I walked toward Greenlight. A chalkboard specials menu outside promoted Shepard’s reading and promised free beer. Inside, the gloomy sounds of Mount Eerie quietly rumbled from the stereo as the staff finished setting up for the event. I must’ve been the fourth person to grab a seat, so I pulled a book from my bag and read while I waited. Within a couple of pages, Jessica, Greenlight’s co-owner, got on the mic. “Grab a drink before the reading starts,” she encouraged. I closed my book and made my way toward the back, where a skinny hipster manned the beer table. How many beers can I gulp down in the 30 or so minutes remaining? I wondered. But when I returned to my seat with a Brooklyn Pennant Ale, bodies started filtering in: aging hipsters, recent college grads, some stray older folks closer to the author’s age. The store switched the music over to Talking Heads and TV on the Radio, songs with more identifiable rhythmic pulses. Suddenly the place was packed and everyone had a beer. The party began.
I gave up on reading, though there were some resilient loners nearby thumbing through magazines and completing crosswords. With no one accompanying me and no recognizable faces in the crowd, I’d have to go out on a limb and “be social” if I didn’t want end up thumb twiddling by myself. But if there was an opportunity to ingratiate myself with my seated neighbors or anyone else, I let it pass by. Interacting with strangers while I was by myself reeked of desperation, even though that was only my self-consciousness talking. I needed a protective sheath of friends to interact with a group of strangers, a lifeline to tug on if things went awry. So I nursed my beer and absent-mindedly glanced around the store, offering a sheepish smile to anyone who happened to make eye contact with me.
The conversation and music halted when Jessica returned to the mic. She delivered a praiseworthy introduction to “writer’s writer” Shepard, urging people to stick around and buy copies of his latest collection, You Think That’s Bad, and drink beer. The white-mustachioed author made his way to the front of the store and flopped his copy of the book onto the music stand. He thanked Jessica for the invitation to read and displayed mock offense at her implication that one needed to be shitfaced to enjoy his work. He looked relaxed while he outlined the night’s agenda: read the first few paragraphs of a few stories (to multiply our dissatisfaction, as he put it), followed by a Q&A and signing/drinks. Some authors would seem smugly disaffected if they acted the same way, but his goal was to treat the event playfully.
I happened to have read most of the stories he “excerpted”: “Poland is Watching,” which follows a group of Poles as they ascend the Nanga Parbat mountain in Pakistan; “The Track of the Assassins,” about a grief-stricken woman determined to cross the Arabian desert in search of the ruins of an ancient sect’s mountain citadel; and “Boy’s Town,” told from the perspective of a middle-aged fuck-up living with his mother in upstate New York. As diverse (and well researched) as his stories are, there’s a theme of failure that helps thread them together. Whether it’s a doomed expedition or a doomed marriage, dread pours from his characters and their misgivings. The tragic settings — a meltdown at Chernobyl or a tsunami at Lituya Bay — are also physical manifestations of these individuals’ fractious relationships and personal turmoil. “Things don’t work out for the Poles,” Shepard said after reading the first story.
His extended Q&A, however, was much more cheerful. Each answer was delivered with a self-deprecating quip or a sardonic one-liner. He would joke about not performing any research for his more historical based stories, then breakdown his process of meshing his research with his characters’ narrative. People asked him about film, his teaching experiences, other writerly habits or processes, and he thoroughly answered them with great aplomb. No nervous hand-wringing or indulgent, long-winded answers, just fun and interesting conversation.
“Why do you enjoy writing about doomed expeditions?” someone, ostensibly a former student, asked. Shepard’s answer boiled down to one word: perversity. He was fascinated by outcasts embarking on quixotic journeys, by those who continually fucked up and by those whose actions were beyond their control. The author himself is perverse in his own way; while on the beach, he read about Gilles de Rais, the French nobleman who murdered children, and tested his own capacity for empathy by integrating the figure into one of his stories.
When someone else mentioned one of Shepard’s novels, Project X, about a school shooting, the author recalled his adolescent misery. He mentioned in passing how awful his parents were. These moments temporarily stalled the laughs that continued throughout the night. I wouldn’t be so glib to compare him to any of his flawed characters, but Shepard himself admitted that there was a correlation between his experiences and those of his fictional/historical-based characters. Not that his jokes were a means of evasion, only that these candid confessions were the most powerful moments of the evening. I experienced that sort of mind-meld you achieve when reading stellar fiction, the ecstasy of two sets of consciousness miraculously converging.
People eventually ran out of questions to ask, so Shepard took a seat at the table next to the stand and readied himself for the signing. A fair amount of people, myself included, joined the line, while the majority of the crowd either browsed the store or searched for beer. This was my second chance to make small talk, to forge some sort of connection instead of digging farther into myself. When a guy behind me struggled to remember the name of a popular Argentinean author (Roberto Bolaño), I considered answering his non-question, but decided to keep quiet again.
My exchange with Shepard was brief but pleasant. I praised him for his work; he thanked me for my questions. When I asked for advice on getting back into penning fiction, he told me to start a routine and stick to it, not to worry about how fruitful the sessions were, that practicing was good enough. It’s a sentiment I’ve often heard, but coming from a writer I admire greatly, the words’ value seemed immeasurable. I shook his hand and shoved his book into my tote. People continued drinking and conversing, but I didn’t stick around. Though I didn’t buck up and meet anybody, I still felt like a meaningful exchange took place.