I hurried to my car immediately after Ron Carlson's November 21 reading at the University of Virginia bookstore, mortified that I seemed to be the only one in the audience who didn't go to the university. He teased the undergrads about how they weren't familiar with The Kingsmen's 1963 version of "Louie Louie," and teased himself about how he was. Most of the MFA program must have been there as well. One of the students, who said he had been amazed, after reading one of Carlson's short stories, by how much like him the protagonist was, introduced the author.
Carlson also teased the students with a mock recommendation letter for Gordon Lee Bunsen, a fictional student who sets the English department building on fire and camps out in his car in front of the teacher's house, writing a novel, which he tapes page by page to the teacher's front door. The teacher strongly recommends that someone take him off his hands. This was as big a hit at UVA as it was at McNeese State University, where I was getting my MFA, when he visited there a few years ago.
That story got some laughter, as did the meaning-of-nakedness conversation from his longer reading, "The Tahoe Curse," which has similar themes to those of his latest novel, Return to Oakpine. I haven't read Return to Oakpine yet, so I can't say exactly how similar they are, but both deal with men growing old. In "The Tahoe Curse," the men still have a band they started in high school. They've been successful enough to have a dedicated fan base, but have never really made it, never having gotten on the radio except when their friend worked at the station.
In "The Tahoe Curse," the silly meaning-of-nakedness conversation distracts the characters from their more serious issue, whether their band should play the supposedly cursed, but very good, song a stranger gave one of them while he was at the Burning Man festival. The other members, who don't go to hipster/alternative events like Burning Man, make fun of him by asking if the stranger was naked (At one point, yes), which starts the meaning-of-nakedness diversion, in which the narrator's wife admits to having let only seven people see her naked in her life (most of them at a picnic) (Six, actually. You'll have to listen to it on The Vermont Studio's Soundcloud page to find out why). They're deciding how to handle a pivotal moment in their lives, which I won't tell you about here, so that I don't spoil the story. I'll just say that they are facing a major change. Carlson is able to imbue his writing's heaviest moments with humor, making it all the more human, more real, and more serious.
The subject matter, an aspiring band that has some dedicated fans, but never gets famous, seemed appropriate for a roomful of aspiring writers. When Carlson got to the part of the story where at least the band gets to meet real rock stars, who give them hooded sweatshirts and other band swag, I couldn't help thinking of when literary rock stars sign books for beginning writers, or long-time less successful ones, at their readings. That may only be because of my own insecurities, making me take it as a reminder not to be surprised if I turn out no more successful with my attempts at writing fiction than the band is at selling its music.
"The Tahoe Curse" has a universal enough theme, a lifetime of dedication met with enough success to make the effort enjoyable, but not enough to get them out of the industry's bottom rung, that people can identify with it no matter what their own personal version of that high school band is. The band thing is a big one, though. America is full of almost-made-it bands like that, touring either the east coast or the west, but never both. It will remind a lot of readers of people they have known.
Before reading his stories, Carlson talked about a reading he did Manhattan Beach, after which one of his readers asked where to find a copy of his second book, Truants. Carlson told him he would send a copy he had in his cabin, but later the man told Carlson not to send it, since he'd found a copy, which he actually thought Carlson should have, since between its pages was a letter from Carlson's mother proclaiming that her son could really write. Before that, Carlson had talked about how writers have stories in them, stories their friends and family would never believe are there, and that the writers have to carry around until they've figured out a way to write them, a serious message delivered in a lighthearted way, as is often the case with Carlson's writing.
All my best work has been of Miss Kristinsen. I can’t help it. People like her are the only things worth drawing anyway. But it’s weird because she has that huge scar on her face. It starts above her eye and goes halfway down her cheek. She still looks good, though, with her pointy little shoulders and the way her mouth twitches when she’s nervous. She has a hard time. And the way she walks. I can’t really concentrate on a leaf or a shoe or whatever we’re supposed to be drawing when she’s in the room.