Tuesday, February 12, 2013

on seeing the 100 percent perfect writer one February evening

George Saunders reading

I arrive 6:15 for the 7:30 reading, and only a dozen seats remain. I grab a solo at the front, flanked by a middle-aged ladies book club on the left, a couple of college girls on the left. Everyone is wearing boots.

The 50- or maybe 60-year-olds say "Tenth of December" will win the National Book Award. The college girls are hatching a plan to take George Saunders out for a drink.

The 12 seats are gone by 6:30; the standing room is taken by 7. It's Friday night in the most literate of cities.

A woman nearby -- wearing boots also -- says, "I saw him a year and a half ago and only 20 people were here. What happened?"

A college girl says he is just publishing more regularly. She doesn't mention the January New York Times Magazine article, the one that proclaimed three days into 2013 that "Tenth of December" is the best book we'll read all year.

A table is set up for post-reading autographs. On it, there is a bottle of Purel, a box of Kleenex and maybe 15 pens.

A Powells worker says if you go to the bathroom, you cannot come back. He teaches us three times how to make a line. When the author appears, do not follow your instinct. Do not curve toward Architecture. Go back. Wrap the room. Snake back to the staircase if you must. Don't go the bathroom.

The 50- or maybe 60-year-olds say Lincoln will win the Oscar. They say, "This sure is a young crowd." The college girls are starstruck when Kevin Sampsell passes.

"Kevin Sampsell," one says. "That is Kevin. Sampsell."

I spy with my little eye, six seats down, Cheryl Strayed. The college girls don't notice, but, woo boy, George Saunders does. He sneaks up through the back stairwell, fresh off an airplane and taking two steps back when he sees the crowd.

"Cheryl," he says.

George Saunders has a lisp, two bald spots and too-long, boot cut jeans. His cuffs are torn. He plays with the change in his pocket.

But he is god here. And damn funny, too. He is humble in a way that feels real. He is insightful, gracious and silly. He reads 30 minutes in six different voices. He jingles his change. He looks for the first question. Even at capacity, it's hard to find that first ask.

"Who in here has the most sexual energy?" he asks.

The front row of boots-wearing 20-somethings can't help but laugh when the guy raises his hand. He is hefty, and he has the exact hairstyle of Larry from The Three Stooges. His glasses aren't plastic frames; his jeans aren't skinny.

Talking is easy after that, though Saunders fumbles with his change the whole time. He talks about his wife, the years he sneaked writing fiction at a day job writing technical copy. He says we should give in to our native charms. He says he is anxious, but writing is easy now. He has tricks and no TV.

The Powell's employees let a few questions slide past the 8:30 mark. And when the line does indeed snake back to the staircase, the college girls give up. Outside, by their bikes, they discuss going for a drink without him. But what's the use, they're buzzed already.

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