This past summer, I did a lot of readings for I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, many of them in Chicago, where I spent half my time. I may live in Missouri now, and am starting to call it home, but my heart will always be in Chicago—along with all the great reading opportunities and venues I can exploit for personal gain.
I read at a couple of my favorite bookstores (Women & Children First, The Book Cellar), did a nonfiction (!) reading series (The Marrow), and even read at the Pitchfork Music Festival. All of this was done in about five weeks, a real whirlwind of a one-city tour. The word was out. Whether these gigs put me into Thriller/Dark Side of the Moon/Eagles Greatest Hits sales numbers, I’m not sure, but that’s for the accountants to figure out.
Perhaps the coolest event I took part in was the Curbside Splendor release party for Little Boy Needs a Ride, Chris Bower’s debut collection of stories. I was going to open for him—reading for a few minutes, warming up the crowd, attracting a few more people, that sort of opening, like Tom Dreesen for the Rat Pack. I’d never met Chris before, nor had I read his work, but I was more than up for helping to promote a fellow CS author. And heck, for five more minutes in front of an audience, I’d drop my mother off at a thrift store.
What was so cool about Chris’ reading was one of the other opening acts, a shadow puppet show. I’d never been to a shadow puppet show before, especially at a bar that served $13 mixed drinks. I didn’t know what to expect (and thank God I didn’t have to follow it), but wow, how amazing. As it turned out, Little Boy Needs a Ride is accompanied by illustrations, illustrations drawn by the same person who was performing the puppet show, Susie Kirkwood, a Chicago graphic designer and jam entrepreneur (she owns PearTree Preserves). The show was fantastic, unlike anything I’d ever seen, telling stories in a way I’d never thought of stories being told. I did a lot of readings last summer, was nearly electrocuted at one (Pitchfork), but perhaps the one I’ll remember the most of was the Bower release jam (welcome to Puntown).
The story I’m focusing on today is “How I Became a Writer 1992,” the story of a young man who is trying to be a writer, but really, is trying to use writing to connect with teenaged poet girls he wants to have sex with (he himself may no longer be a teenager, by the way). He is attracted to them for their poetry—along with their love of the Cure and the Pixies and their vulnerability—so he’s somewhat generally interested in being a writer, but the primary objective still seems to be scoring with artsy poet souls, the virginal female types. The narrator (never named) goes so far as to steal one girl’s poems to claim as his own with later girls. Things with the first girl, Alice, go south when she shares her poems and he doesn’t have anything to send back to her. That’s not a problem with the second girl, Sarah, because he just reads her Alice’s poems. He’s that type of guy.
In an attempt (key word here) to redeem himself, the narrator breaks from the pattern and relays a story from his own youth, hockey camp when he was fourteen at the University of Michigan. He and his hockey cohorts stayed in a dorm, and at the end of the haul, they threw a party. At thid party, the narrator met Abby, a local student (i.e., older), who goes back to his room with him. Abby has a boyfriend, is hesitant as the narrator takes off their clothes, but they push onward. At the precipice of engaging in a sexual act, she stops, starts to bawl. The narrator has a mix of emotions (if a raging teeaged-boy boner is an emotion), then starts to cry, too. This proud scene is his first sexual encounter, naked and crying with a crying naked older girl, who gets dressed and leaves without touching him or talking to him again. The narrator even admits, “The story is a useful excuse for a lot of things in my life,” not that it’s convincing any of his readers.
Sadly, the narrator eventually grows up and wants real love (this time with Catherine, a real writer from California), but his bullshit begins catching up with him. He wants something honest, something real, but he doesn’t deserve it, wouldn’t know it if he saw it. A great last line, scribbled on a piece of paper, perhaps indicates a necessary change. It’s probably too late.
Chris Bower’s book is full of weird, questionable characters who make bad choices, which makes Little Boy Needs a Ride a really fun book to read. I recommend, and if you run a reading series and can swing it, bring Chris in, and Susie Kirkwood, too, whose awesome shadowy illustrations bring a dark, playful tone to Bower’s tales. You’d get a surreal experience, shadow puppets and stories and all.