I almost forgot to go to the 826NYC benefit reading last night hosted by David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell in honor of the fundraiser anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. I'd ordered the tickets weeks ago, and expected them to arrive in the mail. Instead, the lion's share of the audience had to wait in line an hour and a half before the show to get the tickets at an impromptu will-call table. Grrr. But the writing and tutoring center that is 826NYC relies heavily on volunteers, so I guess they aren't paying these people big bucks to be sensational house managers.
Among the readers were two writers whose names are pretty well known -- Lorrie Moore and Joyce Carol Oates -- and two lesser-knowns whose story excerpts were great: Akhil Sharma and Charles Baxter. Sharma's story "Cosmopolitan" has a wonderful line that can acted like a little surprise for the audience as we moved from the head of the character back to the scene of the action: "Gopal wanted to put his hands on her waist and pull her toward him. And then he realized that he had."
Seeing JCO at last was a little shocking and sort of disappointing for me, too, despite seeing her face on countless book jackets. She isn't an excellent reader, and she looks like she's going to wither away, she's so thin and gawky like a spindly Al Hirschfeld caricature of herself. I kind of expected her to have acquired a new accent along the way, but her pronunciation in spots still evokes her origins in western New York State. I used to love her writing as a teenager, and I really hoped to get to share with her how she once replied to a young gushing writing sample of mine with a handwritten postcard of hers.
But by the time she was finished reading her contribution to the anthology, I remembered again why I fell out of love with her stories. So many of them are about the same thing: men being rough with women to varying degrees and women either being helpless about it or strangely attracted to it. And so many of the stories seem to reveal themselves from their very opening, and not provide the reader with any surprise or suspense along the way. So that when I saw her walking out after the reading without signing any books, I wasn't as disappointed to miss out on her signature and a moment of face time.
The unannounced special guest of the evening was Brooklyn native and ex-FDNY firefighter Steve Buscemi reading one of Tobias Wolff's best stories, "Bullet in the Brain." The first half of the story is written one way, and the second half is written another, and they pivot on a moment evoked by the title, but it's such a gem for the way it can shift tone so effortlessly from sarcasm to quiet sensitive objectivity.
The reading took place in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Vowell, whose recent book is called Assassination Vacation, was quick to remind us that Abe Lincoln made his famous 1860 campaign speech in that very room at the very podium she was leaning on.