4:08 pm Jan. 9, 2012
The charming, signature joke of KGB Bar has always been that one of New York's greatest, most exuberant literary hotspots resides in a museum to totalitarian kitsch. The giant USSR flag still sits behind the bar, the walls and heavy curtains are still that deep, dark, Stalinist red. Yet there's something perennially transporting about the place; it seems dimmer than most bars, ripe for intrigue—just dark enough for exchanging state secrets or, as was the case at last night's Sunday Night Fiction series reading with Robert Lopez, Chiara Barzini, and Gary Lutz, swapping spit.
“It’s a nice warm evening and a cozy crowd,” said series curator Suzanne Dottino, who introduced each speaker. The friendly, petite blonde welcomed guests and helped attendees to their seats until there were none left. The event had the vibe of a liberal-arts mixer: pretty girls arrived in pairs; solo shaggy dog bookworms nursed beers quietly under the hammers and sickles; young goateed men in tweed nudged closer to the readers; a striking Rasputin lookalike in a hoodie had staked out a place at the bar; Jonathan Ames wandered the room.
Authors took to the small podium in a dark corner at the back of the bar. Robert Lopez read first, from two new stories and from work that appeared in Asunder, his 2010 book of short stories. A natural performer, Lopez read from stories and monologues, very funny meditations on the devastating absurdities and the desperately lonely inner life that ought to have, in his mind anyway, made him far more famous than he is. "I never use the word mustn't unless I'm talking about the bruised parts of bananas. Only young actresses say the world mustn't aloud. They are allowed to because they have long curly hair and pretty polished toes," says one narrator, with longing, in the story "One of My Daughters is Called Resnick."
Gary Lutz, the clear headliner, read next from his latest book of short stories, Divorcer, which was released in the fall to enthusiastic, if sparse, praise. His previous short story collection, I Looked Alive, was reprinted in 2010 to similar acclaim, but he attained his celebrity and something of hero status among literary types after a 2008 speech at Columbia University, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” which emphasized the importance of language, and was subsequently reprinted in The Believer. His reading last night, though, had a strange cadence. Where his sentences are striking and deliberate on the page, his voice was languid and meandering, an effect that did not quite deliver on the weird brilliance of his fiction. "Something stringy in me must have unstrung itself even more," noticed the narrator of "Fathering," perhaps something that Lutz was thinking as he read aloud.
Not one, but two couples made out while Lutz read “Fathering,” a story about the pathetic lamentations of a husband who, as a hobby, set up his wife with other men. One wondered what the couples found so arousing in non-punch lines like, “Marriage is a medical procedure that once done can’t be undone,” or musings on whether being labeled a husband is “a pleasantry or an affront.”
Italian author Chiara Barzini, whose work has been described by Gary Shteyngart as, “The best thing to come out of Italy since espresso,” rounded out the night, having jetted out of Italy and into town shortly before (she's in town for a bunch of readings this month). She read her story, “Dead Prime Minister,” about a Berlusconi-type leader who refuses to go away, even at his own funeral. “It’s kind of about the fact that it always seemed like he was about to die and he never died,” she said
By the end of the evening, the crowd was spilling into the hallway, with more arriving continuously. “Come on in,” Dottino offered from the podium to the latecomers, “I think there’s some room in the back.” There really wasn’t, but the audience made room for the stragglers. When the reading had concluded, more beers were ordered and readers seemed happy to chat with the throngs of admiring comrades.
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