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May 05, 2004

An Evening at Housing Works

by Ron Hogan

There are two ways to handle a book reading: short introductory remarks followed by a prolonged extract, or a series of extracts interwoven with explanatory remarks and tangetial stories. It was this latter approach Colum McCann took in reading from Dancer at Housing Works. The book, he told us, "has been typed as a novelization about the life of Rudolf Nuryev, but really it's a story about stories." Stories ranging from the Russian front in the winter of 1944 to the streets of gay Manhattan in the 1970s, to which he added his own stories about the writing, including a walk through a cemetery in St. Petersburg where he discovered the grave of a woman who not only had the name of a character he'd invented, but had died in the year he'd assigned to his character's death.

But in one sense, the best story he had to tell us was of his long friendship with Jeff Talarigo, who he'd first met in a writer's group in a small Japanese village in the early '90s. Talarigo was also present this evening to read from his debut novel, The Pearl Diver (which Janice P. Nimura calls "a quiet triumph," while Malena Watrous finds it "original and haunting"). Talarigo started with a scene in which the eponymous Japanese protagonist, well, dives for pearls, then moved on to a later scene in which, following a diagnosis of leprosy, she is ferried by rowboat to an island leprosarium where her former life will be stripped away from her. Then, checking for audience approval, which was immediately granted, he gave us one more scene from her first night on the island, when a fellow exile explains to her how she should choose her new name. After that, he fielded a couple questions about the time he spent at the actual leprosarium he writes about in the novel, compared his experiences there to an earlier period living in refugee camps in Gaza, and discussed how the Japanese poetic forms of tonka and haiku influenced his writing style.

In between authors, an old friend I hadn't seen in ages slipped into my row, followed by another person who took the seat between us. When we could speak freely, I discovered that I'd been sitting next to Lisa Dierbeck, the author of One Pill Makes You Smaller.


I saw/heard Charles Baxter use the same approach as did Colum McCann and it's a very satisfying experience. Why more authors don't go beyond the pro forma is a puzzle especially since the reading tour and public performance are now basically book publication rites.

Sounds like a terrific evening.

Posted by: birnbaum at May 5, 2004 06:23 AM
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