Newberry’s Bar Figaro welcomed Noir at the Bar back to its event room last night, and a mix of new and familiar faces took the stage to share tales of murder, mayhem, and merriment, although of a rather grim sort. But by the evening’s end, a good time appeared to have been had by all.
As is the case around the nation and the world, we here in Mondoville have been alternately concerned and unnerved by the COVID-19 pandemic, and earlier in the week, David Rachels, El Bee and I had conferred about whether or not we wanted to go ahead with last night’s scheduled event. But since none of us were expecting an SRO crowd, and since the virus has not yet made detectable inroads into this part of the state, we agreed to take our shot.
In this respect, I want to drop a word or two about Mr. Block’s physical courage. As a man of a certain age, he is in a high-risk group for the virus and its consequences. However, when I broached the idea of bagging the event, he immediately said that he thought we should go ahead and do it, not least for the audience who were willing to travel a significant distance to get here. If someone with his level of skin in the game was willing to go for it, I certainly couldn’t demur.
I showed up at the venue an hour before go time, but it didn’t take long before I was joined by my former office mate at Kentucky, Chris McGinley. His “Appalachian noir” short story collection, Coal Black, was published not long ago, and I traded him a copy of Broken Glass Waltzes for a copy of his book. We got to chat a few minutes about some old haunts and long-time friends, and then the other authors came in, as did local stand-up comic (and longtime friend of The Berries) Rae Bradley, who served as MC for the evening. I hadn’t seen her in a while, but she remains as lovely, enthusiastic, and delightful as ever.
Marshall Maddy, of Mondoville’s PR department, ran the sound for the night, and we started on time. I took the stage, welcomed the audience (there were just enough chairs to go around), and introduced Rae, who got things rolling by introducing David Rachels.
David did a fine job batting leadoff, reading a couple of short-shorts that I would class as a kind of screwball noir, where a thug’s accomplice is a cat named Mr. Sparkles, or where a baby’s big brother makes a list of things one should “never, never, never” do to his new sibling (such as putting the baby inside a piano, or throwing the baby higher than one would throw a cat.) I figured he would set a fine tone for the evening, and he lived up to his keynote role.
Next up was Raegan Teller, who had a funny, first-person story about a funeral home’s unscrupulous owner, and her willingness to drum up business while simultaneously taking full advantage of the deceased’s last wishes. The audience responded quite nicely, and she may have drummed up some interest in her Enid Blackwell series. I hope so.
She was followed by John Carenen, a former Newberry prof (and current friend) who has authored the Thomas O’Shea series of crime novels, set on the mean streets of a small town in Iowa. He read a passage from the second book in the series, A Far Gone Night, in which the hero relies on some serious scare tactics while interrogating a suspect.
Chris McGinley wrapped things up for the first set, with a pair of short-shorts — the first a story of buried treasure and doublecrosses in the Eastern Kentucky hills, the second a period piece about a gangster and his moll, each of whom has a separate agenda. It was Chris’s first N@tB, and I was delighted to introduce him to a Mondoville audience. We also talked a little about setting a N@tB up in Lexington — I’d love to return to my old stomping ground (not to be confused with another Central Kentucky community.)
After a short break, Rae brought us back together and passed the mike to Newberry sophomore Josh Bookbinder. He’s an English major, but he’s also one of the starting pitchers on our baseball team. It hadn’t been the best day for him — about half an hour before the reading began, he learned that the remainder of his season had, like so many other sporting events, been canceled. But he came in with a brand new story about a young man who finds some rather. . . unusual spectacles one day while walking his dog. The story was interesting, entertaining, and ultimately sweet in a manner that reminded me of the occasional episode of The Twilight Zone. As soon as he finished, Lawrence Block (who was sitting next to me) and I looked at each other and said, almost in unison, “That was really good.” Josh has been a student of both Mr. B and Your Genial Host, and it’s terrific to see how quickly his work is developing. It’s a treat to get to work with him.
Next up was Paula Gail Benson, whose stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies. Paula shared “Ghost of a Chance,” a historical tale of piracy, cruelty, and a bit of the supernatural. The work was richly detailed, and made it easy to see how she has managed to place her work in as many competitive markets as she has.
Then it was my turn. My story, “Alt-Ac,” will be appearing soon in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, LB’s forthcoming anthology with an academic theme. My story is something of a cautionary tale about what passes for the job market in the humanities these days. Suffice it to say I raised the atrocity bar for the evening, but I hope I did so with a certain panache.
But then it was time for the headliner as Mr. Block delivered the first 3000 or so words of Dead Girl Blues, which will come out this summer. Folks, this one is not for the squeamish. The section he read was brutal, horrifying, and disturbingly fascinating, kicking one of the last taboos in the slats along the way. I’ve been fortunate enough to read the entire novel, and I think it is both brilliant and extremely difficult to endure, in the manner of Lolita or American Psycho. When he had finished his reading, the audience sat stunned for a moment before exploding into applause. Afterward, an attendee I had clued in said to me, “I mean, you had told me, but… I mean… Jeez.”
Poor Rae had to come back up and wish us all a good night after that, but she did a lovely job before reminding us to wash our hands. It may take more than that before the audience feels clean again.
Afterwards, we gathered for a few pictures, and here’s one from Raegan.
Once again, despite the grimness the outside world seems to offer us these days, a few fictioneers managed to distract ourselves and an audience from all that for a couple of hours. It was time well spent, and it appears that we once again managed to convince the venue of that, as we’re already invited back for Noir at the Bar: Chapter Three. I hope to see you there!