Sunday, October 14, 2012

Walking the Beats in San Francisco

Hey Jack, now for the tricky part,
when you were the brightest star
who were the shadows?

Of the San Francisco beat boys
you were the favorite.

Now they sit and rattle their bones
and think of their bloodstoned days.
Playing the 10,000 Maniacs song "Jack Kerouac" on my Walkman (then Discman, and now iPod) was the closest I ever came to the Beats.  I'm a little ashamed to admit this because my publisher, Grove/Atlantic (nee Grove Press), was at one time the primary proponent of the Beat Movement in the 1950s.  Grove was like Main Street running through Beatsville.  Kerouac, Allen Ginsbeg, and William S. Burroughs were all published by Grove Press under the watchful eye of the late Barney Rossett.  All my life, the Beats have been like vegetables (beets!!) everyone says I should eat.  But still I resisted.  Even my daughter turned out to be a big fan of On the Road, and yet I never cracked it open. The Beats just weren't my groove.  Perhaps I'm tainted by the memory of some 1960s movie or TV episode (whose name I can't recall) in which the leading lady finds herself in a dim jazz club filled with black-clad, turtlenecked poets in berets who "applaud" the music by snapping their fingers.  Very hip, very cool, very...WTF?!

This weekend, I could no longer avoid it: I came face to face with the Beats.

I was in San Francisco to talk about Fobbit to booksellers at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association convention--

[Interruptive Interlude: I had such a blast at NCIBA--brief though that blast was.  Friday night, I was one of thirty authors who sat behind pyramids of their books at little tables around the perimeter of the convention center's Oyster Point Room, wearing smiles which stayed rigidly in place for more than an hour, as booksellers came up to our tables to talk with us and get signed copies of our books.  I really enjoy these events because it gives me a chance to connect, one-on-one, with the people who are the bridges between writers and readers.  Friday night, I had the pleasure of talking with enthusiastic booksellers from places like Copperfield's, Green Apple BooksFace in a Book, and A Great Good Place for Books.  I was delighted to learn some of them had already read Fobbit and were fans; and others told me they'd been hearing good buzz about the book and were eager to start reading it.  What's even more gratifying is the fact that the vast majority of those who wanted to talk to me about Fobbit were women.  I'm happy to see they weren't put off by what might, on the surface, look like a male-oriented military book.  Cheers to all of you for taking a chance on the novel!]

--and so, when I found myself with a day's-worth of time on my hands, I decided to head into the city and see what I could see. 

Every time I looked up, I found a mix of the old and new

After walking the hills, taking photos of the cable cars (then suddenly craving a bowl of Rice-a-Roni), pulling in a crazy stew of smells through my nose, and having a nice lunch in a Nob Hill bistro, I made my way to City Lights Bookstore--as any literary pilgrim to San Francisco is well-advised to do.

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights prides itself on being a marketplace for radical, sometimes anarchistic, literature.  There's even a section devoted to "Muckraking."  It's a wedge-shaped building, with the renowned "Jack Kerouac Alley" running along one side.

Zooming in, I see someone's hung their Big Panties out to dry

Stepping inside City Lights, I was immediately struck by how small, but very efficient, the store actually is.  There are three floors of books and the flow of traffic moves through a narrow maze of shelves and polished-wood floors.  Just as Ferlinghetti and all the others at City Lights have championed free speech over the years, the bookstore as a whole champions literature and the love of reading.  There are bold, quirky displays all over the store and you'll find several "staff recommendations" calling your attention to books you might have otherwise overlooked.

Of course, as any self-respecting debut novelist would do, I immediately went on the hunt for Fobbit and found it in this big, bold display:

There it is--sixth shelf down--my City Lights moment

Since I was at Ground Zero for the Beat Movement, I decided I couldn't leave without filling in at least one gap in my library's paltry Beat section.  I walked out of City Lights with a nice Penguin edition of Big Sur, Kerouac's 1962 novel.  I started reading it on the BART ride back to my hotel, and quickly found myself slipping into the liquid flow of Kerouac's language.  And so, I'll leave you with the opening from the book, which includes a mention of City Lights--thus bringing my day full circle:
The church is blowing a sad windblown 'Kathleen' on the bells in the skid row slums as I wake up all woebegone and goopy, groaning from another drinking bout and groaning most of all because I'd ruined my "secret return" to San Francisco by getting silly drunk while hiding in the alleys with bums and then marching forth into North Beach to see everybody altho Lorenz Monsanto and I'd exchanged huge letters outlining how I would sneak in quietly, call him on the phone using a code name like Ada Yulch or Lalgy Pulvertaft (also writers) and then he would secretly drive me to his cabin in the Big Sur woods where I would be alone and undisturbed for six weeks just chopping wood, drawing water, writing sleeping, hiking, etc. etc.----But instead I've bounced drunk into his City Lights bookshop at the height of Saturday night business, everyone recognized me (even tho I was wearing my disguise-like fisherman's hat and fisherman coat and pants waterproof) and 't'all ends up a roaring drunk in all the famous bars the bloody "King of the Beatniks" is back in town buying drinks for everyone.

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