Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Raiders of the Ark was the first movie I can remember seeing more than once. I was eleven and lived on a horse ranch in southeastern Alabama. The Peachtree movie theater was almost an hour away in Columbus, Georgia. To see a movie multiple times meant multiple two hour round-trips across the state border. Not an easy thing to accomplish when you're in seventh grade. Fortunately, my family loved the film as much as I did, all of us watching wide-eyed and thunderstruck as the Ark heaved its sinister contents into the furious Cairo sky, again and again. After our fifth and final viewing, Mom bought the soundtrack so we could listen to our favorite scenes at home. My brother and I developed a rather complicated relationship to that tape. We loved listening to the scraps of dialog that littered the album, but, cranking the stereo dial to ten, our mother frequently used the now famous John Williams score to wake us up on Saturday mornings.

For my tenth birthday, my grandfather, an amateur filmmaker (he shot his vacations and screened silent reels of black and white Disney cartoons at family functions), bought me a super 8 camera. That summer, me and my best friend Aaron made several shorts which essentially consisted of animating action figures with a tedious technique called stop motion. We had modified the figures by detaching various plastic attributes from one figure (a shiny robot arm, a scaly dinosaur tail), then softening the edge or tip with a lighter and melting it to another figure. 1981, the year Raiders was released, we grew up. We quit animating our muscled toys and went live action, making movies we thought were wholly original, but which were, of course, Raider ripoffs. The films were shot in the legitimately snake-infested swamps (yellow-bellied moccasins and Eastern Diamondback rattlers) behind my house. Several trees had been upended by a recent tornado (a common occurrence in Alabama), and they precariously bridged a storm swollen brook, each trunk ending in a massive bomb crater of dirt and a jungle of splayed roots on the other side. Kudzu, an invasive, fast-climbing weed, covered an abandoned Dodge Dakota and scrambled over a tin roofed trapper's shack. Vines, as thick as garden hoses, lolled from branches. Spanish Moss made everything weep.

At eleven, I somehow considered myself a suitable candidate for the film's flinty, world weary lead. I was a newly minted JV wrestler and, accordingly, fairly fit for a tween, but I obviously imagined myself much burlier than my 98 pounds. Instead of Indy's leather bomber, I wore my stepfather's khaki field vest. It had a ruffled sash along the waist with a series of loops meant for shotgun shells, and this capacity to carry ammunition made it a rugged and reckless garment. I wore no hat. My stepfather had an expensive felt fedora called a Bogart that he kept in a round cardboard box filled with tissue paper. But borrowing his prize hat was risky, it could not end well, and we decided against it. My brother's barrel chested friend Scott, whose father owned one of the two gas stations in town, was our stock heavy. Scott was a varsity nose tackle several years older who got up at 5 AM to hunt deer in the woods outside of town before school. For reasons unclear to us, he agreed to participate in several of our shoots. One time we even got him to clench, between his teeth, the clay cherry of a smoke bomb, so that his character (inexplicably) belched billows of green smoke.

Aaron, at nine, was the cinematographer. When not hand held, the camera was atop a spindly tripod, the legs of which invariably sank to different heights in the boggy ground, canting shots and inadvertently introducing us to the somewhat noirish concept of the Dutch Angle. Firecrackers, which are legal down South, were wedged into crevices and poked into root tangles (a string of detonated Silver Salutes or Wolf Pack Crackers looks remarkably like exploding gunshots). Instead of a bullwhip, I carried an array of dressage and longe whips (used by my stepfather to train new colts), and occasionally a hunting crop. My weapon of choice, however, was a handful of throwing stars we'd bought at a martial arts expo held in a helicopter hangar at Fort Benning. The year before, my mother had taken my brother and I to Mexico, and the ceramic trinkets we'd bought at the Benito Juarez airport served us well, standing in for precious artifacts and archaeological macguffins, pressed into the soft mud of the swamp.

My brother, himself fired by the summer blockbuster, later majored in archeology at Auburn University and moved to South America (where the film's opening takes place). He once explained that Peru is to diggers what Hollywood is to filmmakers. I made a couple of films in my late twenties (most notably BARMAN, a feature inspired by my half decade as the weekend bartender for a central Jersey gutbucket called The Plum Street Pub), but nothing matched the exuberance of those early shoots. Aaron has since gone digital, upgrading to a silver JVC with an LCD monitor. Once a year he heads to New Orleans to shoot randy home videos of chesty college girls giddy with Bourbon Street exhibitionism, their necks thickly draped with Mardi Gras beads. And finally, Scott, perhaps predisposed by his recurring role as a gangster burping rags of green smoke, maintained a pack a day habit throughout his adolescence and ended up, I'm pretty sure, in jail.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


This is the first of several short and sweet posts concerning the eclectic items that decorate our shop. This framed daguerreotype is something I bought ten years ago at a Chelsea flea market. It's about three feet tall and the olive frame is made from plaster. I frequently tell people it's my grandfather, which, of course, it is not. My grandfather, whose parents were from Prussia, sort of looked like this guy, but his bristling mustache was more tube brush than crow wing. He wore a fur hat in the winter, though never, to my knowledge, a fur coat. His hat was an "ushanka" which literally translates to "ear flaps hat," but the hat in the picture appears to be flapless. He was an amateur filmmaker, a biker, and a carpenter for Dupont. I used to carry a tiny laminated photo of him on his Excelsior, a four cylinder motorcycle popular in the twenties. In the picture he wore massive boots that looked like they were made from truck tires and a flat top cap with a leather bill like the one Brando wore in The Wild One. He used to stamp all his tools with his initials, PK, and I have a silver swiss style hammerhead of his that I keep on a bookshelf at home. I miss him.

Monday, May 19, 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, a Rac rig, 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.