Something didn’t feel right about heading to a Barnes & Noble for Ethan Rutherford and Benjamin Percy’s reading on Thursday, May 16, 2013. The bookstore’s lights were bright, the signage was branded, the bookshelves were pristine, and the store had an escalator. I’m used to bookstores with a bit more idiosyncracy, a but more…character. Ultimately, none of its calculated cohesion changed the fact that Barnes & Noble is a bookstore–still a place where ideas are valued and shared and celebrated.
Ethan Rutherford was celebrating the release of his debut collection of stories, The Peripatetic Coffin, and Benjamin Percy celebrated the release of his second novel, Red Moon. Each author has some legit Minnesota ties (Rutherford attended the U, worked at Magers & Quinn, and taught at Macalester. Percy is currently the writer in residence at St. Olaf’s in Northfield. Plus, his two previous books came out with Graywolf, and he has a craft book coming out with them in 2015). Othwerwise, though, the readers had to stretch to find a bit of common ground.
Rutherford began by stating that he’d taught himself to write by reading Percy’s book Refresh Refresh. These two collections do bear some similarities, especially in the line-by-line fervor of their prose. Short fiction is a genre that depends on firm, bold decisions in regard to word choice and syntax (let alone character, description, and plot). Both Rutherford’s and Percy’s short stories are exemplary in this regard. But Percy wasn’t here to read short stories, while Rutherford certainly was.
For his reading, Rutherford did something I’ve never seen an author do: he started reading in the middle of a story, and then he didn’t read all the way to the end. Nothing but rising action: he wooed us with his language and brought us to the precipice, then left us dangling. His stories have been described as funny, intelligent, wildly creative, and they are all of those things, but this one was laced with an undercurrent of horror–a choice Rutherford made to match the tone of the evening.
Percy followed that by reading a pair of high-drama excerpts from his high-brow werewolf tome. The book seems primed to take off, spawn a movie franchise, sell a jillion copies, launch him into a Stephanie Meyer-like spotlight. But even if Red Moon is an insightful, lyrical, intelligent examination of post-9/11 American phobia, anyone who sees Percy read from it is going to come away with one thought: dude’s voice is low.
Not just deep, not just rich, but like every word he speaks gets hauled up from the bottom of a murky well. There are tones in his voice that haven’t seen daylight in centuries. Ben Percy’s voice has evolved so that it no longer develops eyeballs; its skin is translucent. You can see Ben Percy’s voice’s heart pump the blood through its veins.
He’s also a practiced reader. He performed the audiobook rendition of Red Moon, he told us. Reading for eight hours a day. By the second day his throat was so dry he was coughing blood. “You can hear it on disc two.” I’m not a huge fan of listening to books (I am a huge fan of reading them) but this might be an occasion where I’d like to try it. He’s a theatrical reader, beyond the depth–he performs his work, drawing out the vowels and giving each sentence a haunting weight. At this reading, at least, I could imagine the flashlight held under his chin. I could imagine the terrified, giddy children.
The authors took a joint Q&A afterward, answered questions about their process and their plans for future books, discussed the challenges of balancing a writing life with fatherhood. Both were gracious and charming and seemed perfectly at ease behind the podium. It might have been because the seats were full of familiar faces from the Twin Cities literary crowd–Peter Geye and Dylan Hicks were in the crowd, David Enyeart from Common Good Books and Caroline Casey from Coffee House Press. We’d all come to Edina to be transported, and it’s safe to assume that for the duration of this reading, everybody in the audience forgot where they were, too. Whether in Barnes & Noble, an independent bookstore, the public library, or at home with a book on your lap and your favorite reading lamp shining, a good book has the power to render your environment neutral. That’s the difference between books and other kinds of products. Books don’t just change you, they change everything around you, too.
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