Tonight the Castle is hosting an important reading, and like the Santas, it's a mixed bag: some talent, some embarrassment, and lots of enthusiasm. It's not easy to read aloud in a bar, even with a microphone (at least the poetry readers at the 3300 Club in the Outer Mission have a smaller room to work in); the women, in particular, have trouble being heard over the crowd, even at its most hushed. Grant Black, the 8-year-old son of bar manager Alan Black, comes on first, quietly but firmly chanting a little ditty titled "If I Were a Burglar ..." in an American accent that stands out against his father's burr. The men have no problem with volume: Jack Boulware elicits groans with his fervid, revolting tale of a man describing his vile venereal disease; Bob Calhoun brings a preacher's zeal to his satiric evangelism in praise of obesity. Several tubby Santas cheer in support. It's over in an hour, and then a band takes the stage.
It seems appropriate, somehow, that a momentous Santarchy coincides with the launch party for the Castle's first book, Public House, an anthology of writings by Bay Area folks who've read at the pub during the last decade or so. The bar has always thumbed its nose at convention, combining the seediness of its Tenderloin location with seemingly highbrow readings by often impressive writers, from Irvine Welsh (who helped launch the Castle into the public consciousness, and who contributes a nearly incomprehensible but still entertaining CD of himself performing there to this collection) to Anthony Swofford (who's also included). Even the volume itself is offbeat: The cover says that it was "forged" (rather than edited) by "Black & James" -- that is, Alan Black and Luke James, a member of the pub's "Writer's Bloc" group. With its typos and amateur art and mistakes (one person mentioned in the "Author Bios" section appears nowhere else in the book; I think she's the photographer), it's clearly a layperson's effort.
I'd love to say that the anthology is great (or "a stunningly strong start," as Michelle Tea -- who's read at the pub but never mentions it in her article -- writes in the Bay Guardian), but it's not. It's uneven, at best. I'd also love to say that the readings at the launch party were a revelation, but they weren't. Even so, Public House is worth your money for two reasons: Its better pieces will make you think, and its mere existence tells a story we should all want to hear.
Just as it isn't easy to give a reading in a bar, it isn't easy to write a successful short story. It's not enough to have a clever idea, or to catch a slice of life with vivid description, or to create a compelling scene. A short story isn't the same as a chapter in a novel, and it doesn't just end after a certain number of pages. It should, as the teaching collection Fictions points out, "[intensify] our experience with life as we already know it or [give] us a taste of life as we have not experienced it." A good story (or a good nonfiction essay, for that matter) has a complete arc, a point, and characters we care about even if we don't like them. (Listen to KALW-FM [91.7] some Sunday evening at 5 and catch Selected Shorts, in which big-name actors read award- winning stories, for some remarkable examples.)
The genuinely good stories and essays in Public House are easy to spot, and they nearly make it worth the $15.95 price alone. It may come as no surprise that most of them are from authors who've published with larger houses, whose talent has already been recognized by the mainstream. Emer Martin, whose second novel is out with Houghton Mifflin and who got a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete her third, contributes a vicious, powerful story called "A Sacrificial Shoe" about a "shite person with a great personality" struggling against her debt to the "great person with a shite personality" who saved her life. It starts off a little rocky -- like many pieces in Public House, it could have used an editor -- but ends with a punch to the gut. You won't soon forget it.
Noah Hawley, a Grotto writer whose two novels, A Conspiracy of Tall Men and Other People's Weddings, came out from Harmony (a Random House imprint) and St. Martin's, respectively, contributes "Hurricane Tours," which follows a young on-and-off couple taking a trip to Florida during a hurricane to test the strength of their bond. Not surprisingly, it topples and frays like an untethered trailer. These people are jerks, but we still hope for the best. The story feels a little dated -- the kids work for "dot coms" in the "new economy" -- but I attribute that to a long lead time (a regular book can take two years to put out; this one was six years in the making).
A teacher at SFSU, Alejandro Murguía delivers a piece unlike any other in Public House. His books have primarily come out from City Lights, but he deserves a wider audience; "A Toda Máquina," which has appeared in two other collections, is riveting, painfully and painstakingly tracking an ex-con as he heads swiftly down the wrong road. The story features a voice that rings with authenticity and wicked humor, and it left me clearer than ever before on why losers attract each other.
The always-entertaining Grotto gal Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (W.W. Norton), often humanizes the absurd in her first-person essays. True to form, in "Flush of the Future" she brings us to the sad, proud Toto Technical Center in Tokyo, maker of, uh, high-end toilets. Rather than take cheap shots, which would have been easy, Roach gives us a funny little lesson in humility.
Several of the other writers produce pieces that are somewhat entertaining or smart but not particularly compelling; most often, the stories have no point. Some of them are downright silly. Others probably work better on the stage. A few of the usual suspects appear -- among them Peter Plate, who has his self-taught San Francisco squatter shtick down, and Po Bronson, whose chiseled visage appeared on the cover of Wired and Fast Company but whose popularity otherwise escapes me -- but not as many as I'd expected. There are some good poems from Susan Browne here, and I suspect that her work is particularly suited to live pub performance because it's short (at the book launch the audience grew restless by the middle of each story) and pointed.
Despite Public House's unevenness, I admire the Castle folks for putting it out. It's not an inexpensive proposition to publish a book yourself, and without the backing of a big house's publicity machine you have to hope that word-of-mouth will sell enough copies to cover your costs. The volume's clean, readable appearance is courtesy of Luke James, not a professional designer, and he's done an admirable job (most self-published books look cheap; this one doesn't). And some of the writers in this collection are seeing their work in print for the first time, which is sweet.
But the real reason to buy Public House is to make a statement about what books can do. To support the Edinburgh Castle in its literary endeavors is to support all the unknowns and oddballs and expats and freaks who can tell a story you haven't heard before in a place you'd never expect to hear it. Like the Santas in the bar, the volume takes a stuffy tradition and gives it the finger. And if one person who doesn't usually read catches a Castle reading and buys this title, it will have been worth it.