Friday, May 16, 2008


Deep-throated Bindlestiff, Keith Nelson, wolfs down a yard of neon.

The Raconteur Festival began with a bang, or rather with a piercing, pulsating screech: the sound of the church's fire alarms going off as smoke poured out of drummer Elf's over-sized floor tom during the crashing opening number of The Dan Whitley Band (front man Dan is the younger brother of the late blues legend Chris Whitley). It concluded with the alt country combo, The Roadside Graves, playing fiddles in the aisles as fans stomped their feet.

In between Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus swallowed a three foot illuminated neon tube and rammed a screwdriver up his nose. Seville folk singer, Sandra Rubio, sang in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Critical darling Charles Bock gave away rock posters inspired by his hit book Beautiful Children to audience members who correctly responded to a series of literary questions (I don't remember the questions but the answers were William Burroughs, Cold Mountain, and Flea). Then he threw guitar picks imprinted with the novel's logo out into the audience.

Samantha Hunt read from her acclaimed novel about Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else.Then, realizing she was mere miles from the home/lab of bitter Tesla rival Thomas Edison -- making the surrounding area a "Tesla blackout zone" -- proceeded to explain exactly who he was (he invented the AC motor, wireless communication, etc.). The Idiom, a local literary fanzine, provided strolling buskers and a 4' Science Fair volcano that hiccuped rags of smoke. Prodigiously talented singer/songwriter Jeremy Benson tried to mack Rac volunteer Marcy while Chaos Kitchen, a local punk rock cooking show, served World Fantasy Award Winner/Yale prof John Crowley some sort of meat.

Crowley eyes a paper plate of punk rock pork.

Participants were all given newly minted Raconteur book totes (Rac Sacks) with copies of The Raconteur Reader (the inaugural volume of our budding publishing house) tucked inside. Limited edition Motorcycle Club T-shirts (that's right, motorcycle club, click here for relevant post) were given to shop friend/frequent guest Paul Watkins, a two time Booker Prize finalist who apparently traded his previous Club tee to a keg-chested Viking biker he met on a recent trip to Norway, and Keith Nelson, whose wife Stephanie regularly rides a motorcycle on a tightrope. Charles Bock, who vowed to join our upcoming ride to the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage in Lake Saranac NY, was also given a shirt, which he put on immediately and wore throughout the day.

Lit bad boy Bock becomes honorary RMC member.

After the festival, which ran six hours, participants and staff mingled down at the shop, drinking Islay Malts and occasionally breaking things (ex: a framed and autographed Harvey Pekar comic cover). I spoke at length to team Bindlestiff about their now defunct traveling sideshow/bookstore, The Autonomadic Bookmobile.

The Edison U-Haul on Route 1 has revamped their fleet with brand new cargo vans and are, accordingly, selling off their old moving trucks. And while we've taken no pragmatic steps, I must say, the idea of a rolling Raconteur is very appealing.

John Crowley, who once wrote an entire novel from Lord Byron's perspective and was recently compared to Thomas Mann by The San Francisco Chronicle, met his intellectual match in the shop's resident braniac Larry Mintz, a painter and former academic who is, quite simply, the smartest person I know. Holed up in a balefully lit corner, they twittered about renaissance philosophers while The Roadside Graves hunkered around an oak table and compared arm ink while sucking down Sierra Nevadas. Store overheads are turned out for parties/events and the shop was moodily lit by red and blue clamp spots, a string of Christmas lights made from shot gun shells, and a handful of lamps (including a gold Orient Express repro and a little tassled number that once sat on a highboy in a 1940s brothel).

Crowley poses for pic in blood red light while Graves caper behind in frosty glow.

Crowley, who hails from Northampton, Mass, spent the night in Metuchen. Shop friends Beth and Will have a looming Victorian on Rector and frequently offer B&B services to our esteemed out-of-town guests. In the past, they'd hosted overseas author Jeremy Mercer, who wrote a heralded account of living and working in the famed Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Co., and former Sudanese lost boy Abraham Awolich, who made the shop a stop on his national tour earlier this year. Mr. Crowley (who, I'm told, has no association with the Ozzy Osbourne song of the same name) was leaving early the next morning, and because breakfast with our overnight guests, especially ones as charming as Crowley, is a treat Kristy and I look forward too, we were up at 6 AM the next day for scrambled eggs. Over piping hot cups of Café Bom Dia, we talked about Crowley's Aegypt quartet and Rosamond Purcell (whose picture of decaying books was on the cover of the recently published final installment). Purcell has made a career photographing putrefying artifacts at a shuttered antique warehouse called the Owl's Nest, and Crowley described her photograph of moldering dice so vividly that I immediately searched for it online later that morning.

Purcell's decomposing dice commissioned by sleight-of-hand performer/Mamet regular Ricky Jay.

We talked about our mutual friend Nebula award winner Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners), her publishing house, Small Beer Press, which released Crowley's last book, and Northampton, where they both live. "It would," Crowley suggested, "make an excellent destination for The Raconteur Motorcycle Club." Beth and Will, who are happy to board Raconteur guests provided we never saddle them with "twits or assholes," were enchanted by Crowley's company, as were we, and the meal was a delight.

So now the festival is over. But as agreeable replies dribble in from authors we'd contacted but who, for one reason or another, had originally failed to respond, like Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and Jennifer Egan (The Keep); as effusive e-mails from impressed festival goers flood my inbox and post-show pics of sword swallowers pop up in local papers, festival co-coordinator Dan and I scheme and plan. "The next one," Dan says, fluttering his templed hands, "will be even better." And, indeed, it may well be.

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