On the Road Again
A Review of My Entire Book Tour So Far
I'll say straight off that three weeks is too long for a book tour. Really, from where I'm sitting—two and a half weeks in, on a one-hour flight from Minneapolis to Chicago en route to Louisville where I'll pick up a car to drive to Cincinnati, then Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Syracuse (it all seemed like a very elegant scheme when I concocted it on the internet)—three weeks is too long for anything. Every day I have woken up early, caught a plane, arrived at a hotel, checked my e-mail, gone to the fitness room, ironed a shirt, read at a bookstore, signed books, gone out for drinks, gone back to the hotel, and woken up early the next day to repeat.
Meanwhile, God knows what has happened back home in New York. Spring came and went. People threw parties, went to dinner, published magazines (I still get some of the invitations). From a Polish bar in Chicago, I watched the Rangers get knocked out of the play-offs. In Los Angeles, I lost my credit card; in Portland, my phone charger. I haven't missed a round of drinks since Boston. I'm pretty sure my girlfriend and I have broken up, though I can't seem to get her on the phone to confirm this. On tour so far I've done 14 readings, four radio interviews, two podcast interviews, eight phone interviews, and one panel discussion. I've been out here awhile.
So what was it like in Seattle? To begin with, Viking put me in the Hotel Monaco, which of all the hotels they put me in was the most sensible: It was close to the internet cafe on First Avenue, it was close to Elliott Bay Book Company, and the machines in the fitness room each had their own televisions. In short, it was sensible—like all of Seattle struck me as sensible. The idea of Seattle—no—the idea of Seattle seems at first like a bad idea. It's cold, windy, overcast, and you have to walk uphill all the time. But having decided to settle here, Seattleites have worked it out. You can walk to the baseball and football stadiums; I can think of nothing more humane than that.
The reading at Elliott Bay was, until I got to Cleveland, the friendliest I've done. I read a portion of the book that deals with New York, the bounty of New York, of what it's like to finally get everything you thought you wanted but get it all too late—a part I had not read aloud since an audience in D.C. sat in stony silence through all the jokes and then asked, as their first collective question, "So these are problems specific to New York?" I had put that chapter away after that, but on the day of the reading decided the Seattleites could handle it. And I was right.
It was a young audience, and predominantly male. I guess my book has "men" in the title. So Seattleites are a literal people, I conclude. The questions were straightforward and very decent: I had told the New York Times that I was serious about everything (I guess you should no more trust a person who tells you he's serious than you should one who tells you he's sincere), and someone wondered what that was like. I mentioned that Amazon.com had placed my book in the "teen" category, and one woman, a high-school teacher, asked whether I thought teens would enjoy the book. Afterward, Michael Williams, head of the regional chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, introduced himself. Then I was taken to a party. Seattle was the only town to throw me a party, and afterward the host bought me a burger that—it's possible I was hallucinating—cost one dollar and seventy cents.
The not-nice thing to say about Seattle is that, 25 years ago, it got onto something, and then that something—a spirit of resistance, say, a rejection of corporate hegemony—got packaged for export and became Starbucks, Microsoft, and "indie" music. Seattle is dead and the action has moved. It's moved to Portland. I know this is what Seattleites themselves most fear.
I don't think it's true. I like Portland. But when I got to Portland the next day, it struck me, this time, as just a little too self-satisfied. Giving me directions to Powell's Books, the concierge at my hotel told me to take the tram. I didn't want to take the tram. He insisted. "Well how much does it cost?" I finally said. He'd been waiting for this: "It's free!" All right, so Portland has a free tram. But this doesn't make it Periclean Athens, you know? And no one showed up at my reading.
What's the point of a book tour? Publishers don't believe in them anymore, and given the amount of money my publisher blew on my hotel rooms, I can see why. And airline travel, let's face it, is immoral. But there's still got to be something valuable about going out to face the people and reading to them directly from your book, taking their friendly questions (from the internet, you'd think I'd be confronted in every town by at least one screaming blogger; in fact, on the whole tour, not a single angry question)—something must happen to them from that. Or maybe only to you. That is, to me. Because I think the spirit of Seattle, the old spirit of Seattle, entered me there, because it was in Seattle that I finally went off the rails of my tour. Back at my hotel room after the party, badly drunk, after 10 days of resisting the minibar, the telephone, and pay-per-view—I ordered Cloverfield. Then immediately passed out. And the next morning I refused to get up early and catch my plane to Portland. I simply refused. Hungover, unhappy, alone in my hotel room, I said "fuck that" to all that, and I was right.
I called my publicist from the Cascades train down to Portland to tell her about this, and she was mildly annoyed. Also, Cloverfield showed up on my bill as "In-Room Entertainment"—that is to say, porn. I don't really know if they'll be sending me to Seattle again.
Keith Gessen is the author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men, just published by Viking, and is a founding editor of n+1 magazine.