The bar was packed on a Monday night for the reading in support of a Texas Congressional candidate.
How many words in the previous sentence can you identify as odd? First off, the bar: The Make-Out Room, a wonderful Mission District dive, is normally host to bands of all stripes, but on this night it drew a crowd that mixed PBR-drinking college students discussing shoes with middle-aged frosted blondes ordering Diet Coke. Next, “packed on a Monday night”: What brings people out to a bar on a cold, potentially rainy evening early in the week for an event that isn't free? Why, in San Francisco, it must be politics. And then the reading: This was no lineup of mumbling shut-ins. Rather, it was five authors — big names like Daniel Handler as well as up-and-comers like Andrew Sean Greer — all of them fully versed in how to deliver an entertaining performance, reading from pieces that mostly had nothing to do with affairs of state. Finally, the Texas Congressional candidate: That would be Nick Lampson, who's running against Tom DeLay. When DeLay's name was mentioned, a few people hissed. As a person beyond me at the bar said, “What's politics without the hissing?”
My point is that the intersection of literature, politics, and alcohol was odd but strangely fertile on the night of Jan. 9, when host Stephen Elliott, at the inaugural night of his monthly “Progressive Reading Series,” raised close to $2,000 for the Democratic challenger's campaign. While it's true that the Make-Out Room hosts other literary events (such as Writers With Drinks, the monthly “half salon, half reading” hosted by Charlie Anders), and that the Mission is probably the best place to draw a politically aware audience, and that the number of people in San Francisco who wouldn't like to see DeLay defeated could fit inside a Mini Cooper — one of the tiny old ones — it was still a surprising night, on several levels.
The first surprise was the crowd, by far the coolest I've ever seen at a reading. Audience members were lined up for a block outside the bar, hands in their armpits, until a guy asked them to fill out forms requesting detailed information about themselves. Turns out Elliott takes his fundraising seriously: He consulted a lawyer from Redwood City's New Progressive Coalition — and read SEC guidelines — to figure out how to collect political donations legally. Part of that process required gathering personal info on donors, which the folks in line at the Make-Out happily provided. They also stood for two hours to watch the reading, cheered loudly at many of the dullest jokes, and clapped heartily for every reader.
The readers were also unexpected. They weren't the usual suspects, and they didn't launch into endless leftie rants. They were all over the place, and I mean that as a compliment. In a later interview, Elliott explained that it wasn't hard to find writers willing to participate: “Authors are observers, authors are aware of the world. … [And if] you're aware, you're political.”
First up was Suzanne Kleid, an editor of Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category. Told in five minutes through a slight stutter, her entertaining travel/love story got lots of good laughs, and on the rare occasions when a joke didn't work Kleid was a good sport. I'd happily see her again. Christian Parenti read from The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, the one distinctly political piece of the night. He was a bit boring for my tastes, but the audience ate it up, listening in rapt silence for a good 15 minutes. The actor Sean San José from Intersection for the Arts presented a passage from a novel-in-progress, Tree of Smoke by playwright Denis Johnson; we'd been promised something from Johnson's new play, Purvis, but San José said it wasn't ready. His delivery got more expressive as he went along. Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, got huge cheers when he stepped onto the stage wearing a loud shirt and claiming to be JT LeRoy; his bit, from a forthcoming novel called Adverbs, wasn't among his best, but his performance was fabulously entertaining — and wholly apolitical.
At the end of the intermission (or, as Elliott called it, the “crack break”), during which half the crowd went outside to smoke and after which most came back in, the MC, writer and lecturer Andrew Altschul, served up a very silly take on a job application to replace “Scooter” Libby as assistant to the Veep. He and the next reader, Daphne Gottlieb — a tall, dreadlocked, tattooed vixen who read a dreadful poem about a woman who marries a dolphin (she was filling in for the otherwise busy Michelle Tea) — were the only true duds.
Next up was Andrew Sean Greer, buzz-worthy author of the novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, who claimed that Stephen Elliott “keeps us focused” on important subjects, especially during a time when “we start to think that watching Jon Stewart is a progressive act.” His short story, which he called a “ripoff of Hawthorne,” was an unusual choice for a political fundraiser, but was still pretty sharp. Finally, Jim Shepard, over whom every other writer slobbered all night long, recited scattered sections from Project X, his pitch-perfect novel written from the point of view of a disgruntled eighth-grade boy. The slobbering was warranted: Shepard's (equally apolitical) piece was remarkably entertaining and authentic, and was a terrific end to the night.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was Stephen Elliott himself, a self-effacing, behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. His “Progressive Reading Series,” which he plans to host on the second Monday of every month through October (the next one, on Feb. 13, will include Tobias Wolff, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Jonathan Ames), is remarkably well planned. Elliott picks candidates based in part on whether they're in a race that might be won; he aims not to make useless noise, but to “take back the House.” He chooses writers with an eye toward diversity — male and female, producing fiction and nonfiction, the unpublished and the big names — but mostly he wants authors who know how to put on a good show. His goal is to raise about $70,000 all told (he's also donating a portion of the profits from the most recent book he edited, Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction, which was handed out to those who donated $30 at the Make-Out).
When I asked him later whether he'd ever consider running for office, he seemed amused. “Who's going to vote for someone who's done the things I've done?” After all, his autobiographical novel, Happy Baby, was described by the New York Times Book Review as “surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism, and drugs.” Then again, I pointed out, this is San Francisco. “Sure, I'd run for office,” he laughed. “I'd love to.” Hell, I'd vote for him.