By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
A large woman in a miniskirted Santa suit perches on a barstool in front of me, drink in hand. Other Santas in various states of debauchery and exhaustion wander in as the night goes on; it's the 10th anniversary of Santarchy, an annual event in which dozens of people dress up as the Fat Red One and go on a pub crawl. This bar, the Edinburgh Castle, is late in the run.
Tonight the Castle is hosting an important reading, and like the Santas, it's a mixed bag: some talent, some embarrassment, and lots of enthusiasm. It's not easy to read aloud in a bar, even with a microphone (at least the poetry readers at the 3300 Club in the Outer Mission have a smaller room to work in); the women, in particular, have trouble being heard over the crowd, even at its most hushed. Grant Black, the 8-year-old son of bar manager Alan Black, comes on first, quietly but firmly chanting a little ditty titled "If I Were a Burglar ..." in an American accent that stands out against his father's burr. The men have no problem with volume: Jack Boulware elicits groans with his fervid, revolting tale of a man describing his vile venereal disease; Bob Calhoun brings a preacher's zeal to his satiric evangelism in praise of obesity. Several tubby Santas cheer in support. It's over in an hour, and then a band takes the stage.
It seems appropriate, somehow, that a momentous Santarchy coincides with the launch party for the Castle's first book, Public House, an anthology of writings by Bay Area folks who've read at the pub during the last decade or so. The bar has always thumbed its nose at convention, combining the seediness of its Tenderloin location with seemingly highbrow readings by often impressive writers, from Irvine Welsh (who helped launch the Castle into the public consciousness, and who contributes a nearly incomprehensible but still entertaining CD of himself performing there to this collection) to Anthony Swofford (who's also included). Even the volume itself is offbeat: The cover says that it was "forged" (rather than edited) by "Black & James" -- that is, Alan Black and Luke James, a member of the pub's "Writer's Bloc" group. With its typos and amateur art and mistakes (one person mentioned in the "Author Bios" section appears nowhere else in the book; I think she's the photographer), it's clearly a layperson's effort.
I'd love to say that the anthology is great (or "a stunningly strong start," as Michelle Tea -- who's read at the pub but never mentions it in her article -- writes in the Bay Guardian), but it's not. It's uneven, at best. I'd also love to say that the readings at the launch party were a revelation, but they weren't. Even so, Public Houseis worth your money for two reasons: Its better pieces will make you think, and its mere existence tells a story we should all want to hear.
Just as it isn't easy to give a reading in a bar, it isn't easy to write a successful short story. It's not enough to have a clever idea, or to catch a slice of life with vivid description, or to create a compelling scene. A short story isn't the same as a chapter in a novel, and it doesn't just end after a certain number of pages. It should, as the teaching collection Fictions points out, "[intensify] our experience with life as we already know it or [give] us a taste of life as we have not experienced it." A good story (or a good nonfiction essay, for that matter) has a complete arc, a point, and characters we care about even if we don't like them. (Listen to KALW-FM [91.7] some Sunday evening at 5 and catch Selected Shorts, in which big-name actors read award- winning stories, for some remarkable examples.)
The genuinely good stories and essays in Public House are easy to spot, and they nearly make it worth the $15.95 price alone. It may come as no surprise that most of them are from authors who've published with larger houses, whose talent has already been recognized by the mainstream. Emer Martin, whose second novel is out with Houghton Mifflin and who got a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete her third, contributes a vicious, powerful story called "A Sacrificial Shoe" about a "shite person with a great personality" struggling against her debt to the "great person with a shite personality" who saved her life. It starts off a little rocky -- like many pieces in Public House, it could have used an editor -- but ends with a punch to the gut. You won't soon forget it.
Noah Hawley, a Grotto writer whose two novels, A Conspiracy of Tall Men and Other People's Weddings, came out from Harmony (a Random House imprint) and St. Martin's, respectively, contributes "Hurricane Tours," which follows a young on-and-off couple taking a trip to Florida during a hurricane to test the strength of their bond. Not surprisingly, it topples and frays like an untethered trailer. These people are jerks, but we still hope for the best. The story feels a little dated -- the kids work for "dot coms" in the "new economy" -- but I attribute that to a long lead time (a regular book can take two years to put out; this one was six years in the making).