I listen to Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill on the drive to Kansas. It’s about a writer losing his bearings on a fellowship at a vaguely cultish institute in Berlin. Set in the months leading up to the disasterous 2016 election it is full of conspiracy theories and paranoia. Passing giant poorly laid out signs wishing the monster’s return in fields by the highway should be disquieting but now feels disappointingly predictable and expected. On the bottom of one there’s a question: Do You Miss Me Yet?
I’m going to meet people that I only know on the internet. This is a common thing now. You can have regular interactions for years at a time and never be in the same room. This is the primary reason for my trip. Adam and Elizabeth invited me to take part in a zine fest in Lawrence. They’re letting me crash on their couch a couple nights. Beats the hell out of an email or conference call.
I pass both Kansas Citys en route to Tonganoxie. The house is painted cheerful bright colors. A couple donkeys graze in an enclosure along with a few sheep. Chickens wander to and fro around the porch. After Elizabeth lets me in, one of their four cats makes herself comfortable crawling all over me. The talk is easy and I feel instantly at home here. Books, records, art, and curios decorate every surface. A toy horse rears up, guarding the passage between the living room and a little office. I’m guessing this is one of Adam’s writing spots.
He comes in with Jessie a short time later. She’s his ex-wife but that’s old news. They’re all family. He gives me a tour of the grounds and introduces me to Bear, a dog that makes the cat’s welcome seem restrained. Bear makes it his business to monopolize my attention most the time I spend in the house. He guards me as I sleep both nights.
Everybody’s hungry but we’re waiting for Nate to show up. I know him from the internet as well, having designed a book cover for his Colorado-based press. Nate and Adam go back years. I hear about their book and music tours and misadventures in Mexico. Elizabeth and Jessie roll their eyes at a lot of what the guys say but there’s a lived-in ease to their rapport. They give each other a lot of shit but with a lot of love.
After running a last minute errand to the small Catholic college where Elizabeth works, we eat heaping platefuls of vegan bolognese and keep the conversation going. Feels good to be among people as commited to art as me. They’re all younger but none are kids. They’ve all paid plenty to live unconventional lives.
It’s hot as hell outside the next morning as we set up our books and merch at the zine fest. There are tables inside as well but that means wearing a mask all day and being away from my friends, so I opt to sweat it out. I move some books and bookmarks and Nate asks me to design another book cover for a forthcoming story collection, so the day’s worthwhile if exhausting. We’re running on fumes as we pack up but there’s a reading still to do in Kansas City, Kansas, so we pick up a 24-pack of Modelo and head there.
Book readings are always awkward. There’s always a disconnect in that a book is made to be read silently to oneself so when the writer reads aloud from it standing or sitting among listeners he robs them in a way from experiencing the work in its intended context. It will never be a thing I enjoy or excell at but I’ve gotten passably competent at it over the years. I go first and get it over quick. Adam reads longest and engages the audience the most. He makes us turn our chairs and surround him as he sits on the floor, one foot under his butt, almost as if squatting by a campfire. He has everyone close their eyes to remember those we’ve lost these past few years, to reflect on the trying times and difficulty so many have faced and continue to face. It was a lot more meaningful than the typical pro forma ritual to move product.
There’s a fire pit late into the night. Whiskey, beer, and tacos. I hear many stories and tell a few of my own. There’s no way to approximate any of this online.
I drive out before 8am the next morning. I finish Red Pill and queue up another book on tape. I’ve only been gone a day and half but when I see the Chicago skyline early evening it feels like I’ve been gone a month. So glad I spent time with those people in real life.
—Friday night is the opening reception for CITYSCAPE CHICAGO. I have a painting in the show. Stop by. Then Saturday and Sunday I’ll be selling books and crap at Printers Row Lit Fest. Gonna be extra peopled out by the end of the weekend, no doubt.
—Listen to my talk with Sam Wagster, then tune in Wednesday for one with Keefe Jackson. Also, Mallory and I talked Blue Sunshine. It’s a 70s movie that features a creepy politician whose slogan is “Make America Good Again”. But good isn’t good enough for us any more, I guess.