There was a communal morbid, rubbernecking curiosity at the outset of the Hugo House's "Road Trip" presentation last Friday. It was the first major House event since September, when Lyall Bush suddenly departed his position as executive director, and it was the kickoff for this season of the House's Literary Series, featuring nationally renowned authors reading on a theme, which Bush helped found.
Earlier in the week, the House announced its new interim executive director. His name is Cory Sbarbaro, and he comes from a nonprofit/executive background, not a literary one. Sbarbaro has been involved with nonprofits like the Pacific Northwest Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute and the United Way of King County, and he is generally described as enthusiastic and efficient, and very capable on the money side of things. Unsurprisingly, Sbarbaro, whose job description includes finding his own replacement, did not speak at the reading.
Instead, House program director Alix Wilbur introduced readers and told the audience about what she considered one of the most exciting new House programs of the year: porta-potties in the back parking lot to make up for the few public bathrooms in the House. Wilbur was funny ("Here at the Hugo House, we take the 'not' in 'not-for-profit' very seriously"), excited, and mercifully brief in introducing the readers, which made the event feel more casual than past readings.
Aimee Bender took full advantage of the casual feel. Her piece—about a young woman traveling with a boyfriend who loves awkward public sex for the feeling of "things just pushing against the perimeter"—felt more autobiographical than her other work. But Bender is one of America's greatest fantasists, and the fantastic crept in at the corners—the narrator feels an attachment with dozens of other women through the masses of wadded, moist paper towels thrown into a trash can at a rest stop, and a creepy young girl's face smooshes through the tiny squares of a tennis racket like the monsters in The Abyss.
Wilbur introduced Bender with a popular quote from an L.A. Times review of one of her books, one that claims Bender is like "Hemingway on an acid trip." It's a terrible quote and not very accurate; even in this atypical reading, any blurber worth his or her salt could tell you Bender reads like a magical-realism Raymond Carver without the alcoholism and suicidal tendencies.
Marie Howe is a great, meticulous poet—"I write about a book every 10 years," she explained—but her formality was a weakness. A few poems, especially a tribute to her late friend, the poet Jason Schindler, were affecting, but Howe felt a little too New York City for such a casual affair. "I don't ride the subway," she huffed while introducing a poem, "Woody Allen didn't ride the subway. Jackie O didn't ride the subway," and you could almost hear the sound of a roomful of hundreds of Seattleites salivating at the idea of an efficient public transit system.
But the real star of the night was Matt Ruff, who read a prequel for an unproduced TV show of his own creation, an X-Files–type show about two black travel writers exploring Jim Crow–era America called Lovecraft Country. The protagonist mistakes books by H. P. Lovecraft for romance novels—"There was no love in these tales, or even women"— and reads Dracula even as he accidentally wanders into a sundown town.
Like much of Ruff's work, it pulsed with genre, referencing Philip Marlowe and pulp novels, but the research and reality that serve as a base for the story—there really were travel guides describing safe passage through America for Negro motorists in the late '40s and early '50s—made his story an unintentional companion piece for Bender's. It felt like a television show from another universe, but just enough reality intruded to remind us it was true.
Ruff's piece was the one everyone was discussing as they wandered into the House's cabaret, where trays of macaroni and cheese and BLTs and a keg of free beer waited for them. Even out back, by the swinging plastic doors of the Honey Buckets, you could feel a kind of mass exhalation about the future of the Hugo House. After all that worrying, everything, it seemed, was going to be just fine.