Tour-Spiel

We’ve been on the road since Monday. Tonight will be show seven of eight. Each place has been different. I wonder how many dates we’d have to do to make them repeat or resemble one another.

The drives between have varied as well. Two hours to seven. Flat lands and mountains; straight roads and endless switchbacks; tollways and unlit country roads. I do the driving while Bill works his phone. We listen to music I choose. Sometimes we talk.

At each place there’s a block of time between our arrival and showtime. We fill it with eating and sitting around mostly. Bill does soundcheck; I don’t. I’ve read at five of the six stops so far. A different thing each time. Afterwards people come up and buy books. It surprises me a bit. It’s generous of Bill to let me do this. I would have been fine with just driving and selling his merch.

I’ve been getting sleepy in the afternoons but by the time the opening act hits the stage I’m usually back awake. Sleeping in a different bed every night is odd but I’ve been getting my rest. I think Bill has a harder time coming down after playing. He says he doesn’t usually sleep much on tour.

In every town he has old friends to catch up with. Most are new to me. In a few places the venues are run by former Chicagoans. Everyone is generous and accommodating.

Indianapolis was a worn cinderblock bar, Asheville a brand-new craft brewery stage, Charlotte an annex behind an art gallery/menswear boutique, DC a punk house in a gentrifying area, Brooklyn a craftsman-made survival bunker, Turners Falls a shambling house and garage full of longtime friends. Rochester will be a record store, Detroit a cafe.

We will have driven 2,500 miles when we return to Chicago.

It’s been a great change of pace from the month of bookstore assembly that preceded it.

It took two and a half years but I finally finished Olga Tokarczuk’s epic Books of Jacob sitting by a window of a house in Northampton, Massachusetts this morning.

I put together a bunch of writing and pictures of Tangible.

I look forward to getting home and putting the final touches on my Rainbo show, which opens Sunday, June 16th. There will be a reception that evening, 5-8pm. Maybe you’ll be there too.

Christina Ramberg

When I went to art school at the start of the 90s, the Chicago Imagists were the academy. Even though the artists who were grouped under that banner resented and rejected the label, as any artist would, they were the monolith with which incoming students at SAIC had to reckon.

The odd stance of this group was an insistence on outsider or naive status combined with a stiff, often anal technique. It made for pictures that often came off as calcified jokes. An even unfunnier, more puritan Surrealism. A studied otherness that almost always felt like a contradiction that could never be squared.

My one memorable experience with any of their work back then was going to the Ed Paschke retrospective on acid. When me and my friends left the museum, passersby grew electrical rays out of their bodies and vibrated like the figures in his paintings. Sober, the same pictures left me cold.

Since seeing the amazing Christina Ramberg retrospective at the Art Institute a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to formulate why her work grabs me while her friends’, husband’s, and colleagues’, doesn’t.

It has something to do with not trying to be funny, maybe. Her paintings are mysterious and self-contained. The near-absence of faces gives these pictures a distance. They often feel like they have their back to you. There are rarely hands and feet either, but they’re almost all human bodies; or, rather, torsos.

I don’t care much about what statement Ramberg was trying to make politically, but her art is clearly about constriction and control. The way bodies carry whatever it is we are, or fail to do so.

There’s a wall of homemade dolls from Ramberg’s collection in the show. They, along with cut-up comic book frames, are some of the jumping-off points for her paintings. But inspiration and influence doesn’t explain where she ended up. These are uniquely odd images that lodge in the mind without ever explaining or revealing themselves.

Ramberg died young and her last work—quilts and loose abstract paintings—hint at a change of direction she never lived to see to the end. These late things don’t work the way the strictly controlled earlier work does. When I go back to see the show next, I’ll probably stay in the first galleries and skip the last.

It’s not that her last things are bad, it’s just that they don’t cast the same menacing spell.

I talked to Bruce Wagner about his new book and other things.

I have a system

I have a system. It involves numbered notecards and many crates. I start in the basement with the Zs and work backwards to the As. The stairs are the hard part. Even though the crates rarely hold more than fifteen books to maintain alphabetical order, I can only carry three at a time. I load them onto the handtruck upstairs, stacking six, then wheel them teetering down the ramp, into the new space, all the way to the back room.

It’s the future home of Mysteries and Thrillers and also the event space, replacing the old basement that I’m dismantling shelf by shelf.

The crates are practical. They stack and don’t fall apart from repeated use and rough handling, but they’re unforgiving. I have cuts all over my hands from scraping their rough edges. I pour sweat going up the stairs with full stacks and back down with empties.

When a bookcase is empty, I haul it upstairs. The new room is airy and light; totally different than the basement. I think about the millions of words I carry as I work. Some of the authors are factories rather than individuals. James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Clive Cussler, Janet Evanovich, Stuart Woods, and a dozen others have thirty or forty titles each. I stack their paperbacks two deep to save space. Each one’s series has a keyword in its name, like Prey or Girl or Dark. They’re like branding, made to be recognized by repeat reader/customers. When they see the word they know what they’re getting. They keep coming back or else I wouldn’t be hauling these piles.

A few days after I finish with the Mystery room, there’s a play performed in it. A fake author-signing by a pompous self-described thriller writer who sends out his own press-release comparing himself to Fleming and Clancy. I laugh along with the others. It’s cool to see a room that was empty only a week before, now full of people and voices. The blur of multi-colored spines lining the walls is a fitting backdrop. The fact I put all those books there is satisfying in a way I rarely experience.

We keep taking apart the old store, section by section, working mostly back to front. I lose track of time and day. I come home exhausted every evening. It feels like it will go on forever, though I know from the emptying storefront that it will all be over in another couple weeks.

June 3rd I leave town on a weeklong tour. When I return, the old store will be gone and there will only be the new one.

How will I know what to do once there are no more crates to stack and number?

Mallory and I go into Inland Empire.