Whoever it was who first said you can’t swing a dead cat in Missoula without hitting a writer should be awarded a Nobel Prize for Turn of Phrase. Not only does it sound like something a Montanan would say, but it’s totally true, too. And you’d be hard put to find a greater concentration of them than at the Hob Nob Cafe on a Sunday night, when an impressive cross-section of Writing Missoula comes out to hear the Second Wind readings.
One of the first writers I ever admired—by which I mean one of the first writers I ever wanted to be—was Edward Gorey, author and illustrator largely of children’s books that aren’t really for children: The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/B is for Basil assaulted by bears”), and scores more. Gorey is more of an illustrator, really, although the parsimony of his writing allows him to make some funny comments on writers without really having to put up. The protagonist of The Unstrung Harp, a reclusive and eccentric author with a head the shape of a golfing iron, is called upon to attend a literary dinner, where “the talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.”
Gorey’s illustration and the accompanying text is the one I assumed was most indicative of what it’s like when large groups of writers get together. Guarded, measured or, worse yet, every conversation a tiger trap of solicitude concealing rows of recurved spines, barbs subtly encoded in the innocuous superficiality of simply talking about something common to everyone present. For the longest time, not that anyone tried, there was no convincing me otherwise.
People talk about jobs, people talk about hobbies. Some lines of work happen to satisfy both requirements; somewhere in some antipode to Missoula there’s a convention of shih tzu breeders or leather binding retoolers gazing raptly at a keynote speaker ensconced behind a lectern decked out with the appropriate thematic bunting. Preaching, beyond a doubt, to the converted.
What does the Second Wind crowd have in common, aside from the rubicund contentment of just digging the homegrown arts scene? Looking around this room, you see a little bit of everyone. The firmly entrenched champions of the Western mythos, the novelists, the published and the unpublished, the MFA homies who come out to hear each other read from works they’re no doubt plenty familiar with already, having in many cases seen them through from the first germ of an idea to the last layer of polish. The devoted listeners, too; tonight’s readers are Audrey Freudenberg, a poet in the university MFA program, and Tom Molanphy, an MFA nonfiction writer. Friends, family and the merely curious are also out in numbers.
Freudenberg, reading what she describes as her “persona poem” about Pygmalion and Galatea, speaks with a crispness and precision that confirms the theatrical background organizer Erin Brown mentioned by way of an introduction. She reads more from memory than do many Second Wind readers, and as she does so she looks confidently from face to face, gathering you in that much closer. Her poetry is laden with fertile allusions and inanimate objects that assumed personalities during a recent move; bits and pieces of it, like “the pursuit of privacy beyond its closure,” you almost have to jot down to fully appreciate. Behind the podium, out of view for most of the audience, one foot spins girlishly on a pointed toe.
After a 15-minute recess, Molanphy takes to the podium and reads from a recent work that he introduces as “a conglomeration of those four Mardi Gras, as best as I can remember them.” The story opens with Molanphy himself awaking to the sulfurous tooth-fur of a particularly nasty New Orleans hangover, parched with thirst, his nails burning with the spicy shred of last night’s crawfish. Also strewn about the house and yard are a couple of wife-swappers, a spear-toting German flounder fisherman, and a friend who was denied shelter for a bet he’d made and won the night before. Molanphy’s friend had bet that he’d stick his hand up a policeman’s horse’s ass. “He took three steps back and really punched it,” deadpans Molanphy. The tale careens from humor to tragedy and back: Molanphy finds a sick kitten and drives it to the home of his roommate’s father, a veterinarian nursing an equally ugly hangover, and agonizes over whether or not to have it put to sleep. Later, he runs into the kitten’s owner, and elderly lady tottering around looking for her “Pepper,” at the same time his diehard roommates are re-enacting an extra day of Mardi Gras for the benefit of the flounder fisherman, who arrived too late to see the parades.
There could hardly be a better way to sample literary Missoula than a night at the Second Wind. Since November, there have been sketches of Arctic explorers, a detailed account of life on a crab boat, a fond recollection of Missoula softball, a humorous examination of one woman’s quest for things to talk about with her boyfriend on a cross-country road trip, and much more. These people are your friends and neighbors and dammit, this is why we live here.
The Second Wind reading series continues this Sunday, Feb. 27, with readings by Eric Springer and Janisse Ray at the Hob Nob Cafe at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.