(This is chapter 27 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
It never occurred to me, during my early years running Literary Kicks, that I could use the site to discuss contemporary literature or current writers. There were no lit bloggers around (yet) to compare notes about new books with. Literary Kicks had always been about dead writers, about the literature of the past. The contemporary fiction scene barely interested me at all.
It had been better a few years earlier in the late 80s/early 90s, when Paul Auster wrote City of Glass and Nicholson Baker wrote The Mezzanine and Don DeLillo wrote White Noise and Art Speigelman wrote Maus and Donna Tartt wrote The Secret History. Now in the late 1990s I felt postmodern literature was stuck in a phony phase, a mannered phase, more wrapped up in chic style than moral or intellectual substance.
I loved to look at the early McSweeney’s publications produced by the talented Dave Eggers — but I found the fiction in these beautiful books hollow. Probably the hippest postmodern book in town was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, but I didn’t see why he needed 1000 pages to tell that story, and I deeply resented his assumption that I had this much free time. I’m a slow reader, and I had about two good hours of book time each day — an hour on the R train in the morning from Forest Hills to 23rd Street, and an hour during the evening trip back. If I’d stuck with Infinite Jest, it would have occupied half a year.
I felt similarly annoyed by the brutally long and intentionally difficult works of William Vollmann, another postmodern maximalist darling of the time, whose works seemed designed to allow timid brainy readers to prove how tough they were, how much abuse they could take. Me, I’d managed to suffer through books on advanced object oriented programming in C++, so I didn’t need to read William Vollmann to prove I was tough.
I could have had a lot to say, both good and bad, about the literary scene of the late 90s. Thinking back now, I find it hilarious that I was running a popular literary website but never thought to cover the contemporary lit scene online. Sometimes I can be remarkably dense.
I’d sit there reading the New York Times Book Review every weekend, but I never once thought to write anything about it. (Years later, when I began writing about the Book Review on LitKicks, it felt like a revelation that I could do this.)
Where I did find a literary home, though, was not the midtown Manhattan commercial publishing scene but the downtown poetry community. Spoken word was big, and I could hear a wide variety of riveting live poetry shows at the Nuyorican (heavily East Village/political), the Knitting Factory (artsy/hip-hop), KGB (hipster), St. Marks Church (Warhol factory/beatnik) or ABC No Rio (homeless). I made many friends through this scene, like Brian Hassett, a Canadian writer who worked as an office temp at MTV and wanted to arrange poetry shows that we could promote on LitKicks. I was game to try, and we scheduled the first show, a Jack Kerouac tribute reading, to take place at an Lower East Side club called the Living Room on February 10, 1999.
The Living Room was a very cozy place — all couches and big dusty chairs and a humble piano. We didn’t know this then, but around the same time we did our show, a young up-and-coming singer named Norah Jones was playing regular shows at the Living Room. Her future hit song “Don’t Know Why” must have sounded great in this soft, smoky room.
What made Brian Hassett’s show extra special was the presence of David Amram, an awesomely accomplished jazz and classical musician who’d worked with folks like Charles Mingus, Leonard Bernstein, Phish and Bob Dylan. Most famously, though, he’d jammed on french horn with Jack Kerouac in a December 1957 Greenwich Village art gallery reading later remembered as a highlight of Jack Kerouac’s career. So it was pretty amazing that Brian Hassett had convinced David Amram to jam with us at the Living Room, and it was most amazing of all that Amram, a remarkably kind and sensitive man, offered to play piano, french horn and flute behind each of us as we read.
It was certainly a highlight of my life. I chose to read a prose piece called “The History of the California Burrito” from my 1995 Queensboro Ballads story cycle. This is the story of a lonely guy who finds religion by eating a vegetable burrito in a California restaurant, and it’s more or less my fictional tribute to Jack Kerouac. Amram played soft minor chords as I read, and even though I was stagestruck to the point of stuttering I think I managed to keep up some kind of fragmented rhythm during the piece.
I also enjoyed sharing stage time with Steve Dalachinsky, Ann Douglas, Robert Burke Warren, Will Hodgson, Adira Amram (David’s young daughter), Ed Adler, John Grady, haiku master Cor van den Heuvel, Frank Messina, Tony Sampas, Jason Eisenburg and journalist Al Aronowitz. This show was so much fun it made me start to think about bigger shows Brian and I could put on together. But I was pretty busy with my new job, so I shelved that idea for the time.
While I was working myself up to perform at literary events in the East Village, I was also scrambling to put on a credible performance as the “Director of Systems Engineering” at my hectic new job on 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Our IPO was now scheduled for late March 1999, about two weeks earlier than everyone had expected. I was in charge of 10 confused and mostly angry software developers and Unix system administrators, and I was supposed to hold down the fort until the new Chief Technology Officer (who’d just been hired) showed up.
A few days after our IPO date was set, I called my first meeting of the entire software department. I felt more nervous here than I had under the spotlight next to David Amram’s piano at the Living Room. I wanted to emphasize how important it was that nothing would go wrong in the next few weeks, so I handed out printouts of articles about highly publicized server crashes at EBay.com and at TheGlobe.com before and after their successful IPOs. “This is what we don’t want to happen,” I said. “The IPO is six weeks away, and the market is very volatile. Any perceived problem could harm the opening price. I don’t care what you have to do, but please keep those servers running until the end of March. We’ll figure out how to fix all our problems after we get there. Okay, go.”
I was later told that I hadn’t made a very good speech, that most of the disgruntled employees had walked away disappointed. They’d wanted to hear all about how great they were and how much iVillage loved them, and all I did was talk about everything that could go wrong. Truth hurt, I know.
At least I got a lot of applause on February 10, at the Living Room with Brian Hassett and David Amram, and that was a much nicer room too.