Notes From Book Tour #12: From Bethel, with Love

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There was a reading last night in Connecticut. I was told it was a disaster, not because there were only twelve people there, but because of the old woman who owned the building and the used bookstore next door. She was a large, mean, unhappy person, sitting on a stool with her arms crossed and she interrupted the reading to say that she was entitled to 40% of any book sales in her building. She said it was in the lease. But that didn’t matter. I said if she wanted 40% she would have to pay me hourly, and also for the shipping of the books.

The reading had been written up in all the local newspapers but that turns out not to mean anything to anyone, unless you’re in New York, where it matters for a different reason, where a literary event can become a place to be. The only people in attendance were members of the poetry group that was sponsoring me, and they had been at war with the bookstore owner for some time.

When the reading was done we retreated to the pizzeria across the street for cheese pizza, wine, beer, and sprite. Then we went back to my host’s house and talked for awhile. Her husband is a fascinating man who makes his own bows and arrows to go hunting. He described waiting in a tree for his prey, a hawk landing in the branch next to him. He edits a magazine and, on the side, downloads patents and designs for antique guns which he makes copies of and sells on eBay. Everything he said was interesting.

The conversation in the living room revolved around a poetry anthology, sponsorship, and the bookstore owner. I wasn’t worried about the bookstore owner; I sold my books. But these were important conflicts in the Connecticut poetry world. The poets decided while still in the pizzeria they would no longer hold their events in the cafe next to the bookstore. It had gone too far. The bookstore owner was killing literature. It reminded me of Bolano.

Well, everything reminds me of Bolano now. I’m 200 pages into The Savage Detectives, following Nazi Literature in the Americas and 2666. It’s hard to imagine anything else. What’s at stake with Bolano’s poets? Everything. And the way these poets in Connecticut talked about the bookstore owner it was like the final battle between good and evil. Of course, I wanted them to win. I was given a history of the readings series, fifteen years, the longest running series in the state. In 1997 they hosted the National Poetry Slam Championships, a defining moment in the slam movement, attended, unhappily, by Marc Smith from Chicago, the creator of the original poetry slam. Recently, one of the poets had committed suicide. The Connecticut poets had wanted to distribute his books free of charge, but the bookstore owner had stopped them. How had she stopped them? The same way Lupe’s pimp laid siege in The Savage Detectives, by parking his camaro outside Quim Font’s house and waiting. It was surreal, actually, that a group of people could be stopped by one mean old lady, that it required meetings to decide how to fight back. In other words, surreal, but real. Matters of very large consequence. A small matter that loomed large over an entire region’s literary identity and the area’s next great writer, who would undoubtably pass through this group in one form or another.

Here’s something Bolano said in a talk called Literature + illness = illness:

While we search for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, the new, that which can only be found in the unknown, we must continue to turn to sex, books, and travel, even knowing they will lead us into the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place we can find the cure.

I read that and I think about Bolano and my quixotic journey back and forth across America funded by the difference between the wholesale price of my book and the reduced price I sell it for in people’s homes, and things start to make sense. It makes sense even that I went home with a woman the other night in New York, a young, beautiful writer who looked like she came from the ocean and could quote passages of my work back to me. She stood near the table following my event, forcing people to purchase my books. I had never met someone who loved my work so much. She said she was writing a paper about me and had planned to attend every reading I gave in New York, but that proved impossible so she approached me and later we took a cab to her apartment in Brooklyn where she lived with her two children, whom she had left upstairs with the neighbor.

She asked me what I wanted and why I came home with her. I said I didn’t know, and she had asked me to. Then we fell asleep. Then I woke up and we called a car service to take me back to my friend’s in Manhattan. There was some other world where I spent the rest of my life with the mermaid and her children, but that world is not this world. Still…

Something else from The Savage Detectives:

You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.

The point is, this was just one girl, but that will probably never happen again. And I left without ever meeting her children, though I saw their drawings scattered on the living room floor. And Bolano wrote about the medicine of travel and the abyss but in fact his travels were over by the time he was my age. He was married and there were children and so he locked himself in a room and wrote all day. In other words, he had taken all he could take from the abyss and was living under death sentence from a liver disease. He was worried not about life but about what he would leave behind, the work and also the money for his family.

I’m not quite done with the abyss, though I approach with a familiarity that makes it easier, and a purpose, even if it’s meaningless, to sell a dozen books every night to a group of strangers. Driving north from Connecticut to Hudson the streets are cold and wet and full of leaves. And it’s quite beautiful, the grey fog on top of the mountains to the west and the farmhouses and green hills. But it’s not as beautiful as San Francisco.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →