I understand that authors are only humans like the rest of us – just because they can produce stunning works of literary artwork from time to time does not really set them apart from the masses. Everybody has bad days. And all booksellers have had bad experiences with authors who may not necessarily carry bad reputations around. So Michael Dibdin showed up drunk and chainsmoking or Christopher Moore made fun of you in front of a crowd or Chris Reich throws a hissy fit – these things happen (and actually did), as they are just people after all. And for every one of these experiences, there is one where an author has an unfounded reputation for mayhem and they turn out abundantly cooler than expected (T.C. Boyle, for one). So I say, let bygones be bygones – there’s nothing better than a second chance, right?
In this one particular instance, I was willing to chalk things up to a faded memory of a past experience – maybe this guy wasn’t really as bad as I remembered, maybe he was having a pissy day last time I saw him and that was why he acted the way he did. I first met Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans in early 2002 – he had a book signing (for Casanova in Bohemia, I believe) at the independent I worked for down there and, as he lived in New Orleans at the time, he had a rather large following and a hefty turnout for the signing. From what I remember of the evening, he was great with his fans as he signed books – chatty, friendly, witty – and completely standoffish with me – the monkey hauling chairs, selling books, solving problems – not to mention with the owner of the shop, who put up with the author’s air of superiority with a smile, as his shop was still in the fledgling stages of business. Maybe he didn’t even notice, I don’t know, but Codrescu was the first author to just rub me the wrong way. He made me feel as if I were the invisible boy – presumably because I wasn’t a glowing fan and was just the shameful commercial side of his successful career. I’ve met hundreds of authors in the years since then and honestly, the only other time I felt treated that way was with Joan Collins and I was happy to be the invisible boy that day, believe me.
So, when when my current employer booked an event with Andrei at the downtown library, I requested to work – I figured it had been plenty long and perhaps my memory of his behavior was skewed by time lapse. Besides, I had that whole New Orleans thing going, he had just had a book signing at my old store in NO a few weeks before – how could things go bad? With any normal person, these personal connections, uncovered in a far away location like San Diego, would be conversation starters or at least mild talking points. Right. The event itself went great – Andrei’s new book, The Posthuman Dada Guide, is an esoteric, high-brow, over-my-head, philosophical minefield, but the 100 people who turned out to listen to his talk seemed right in tune with it all. He was witty, sharp, and genial on stage, leaning over the podium and growling in his thick Romanian accent into the mic, throwing around tales of dadaist vampires and fictional chess matches. The signing line was 50 people strong and he seemed to continue that genial streak with them, chatting and laughing with everyone who approached his table. He had several very long conversations with some attendees, including a young Russian woman who sat in the wings, waiting to talk to him some more, once he was finished with the signing. As this was sort of a hybrid bookstore/library event, I was pretty hands off at this point and the show ran itself. I just sat patiently in one of the second row seats with my modest pile of books and waited until the line dwindled down. When I introduced myself as being from the bookstore, Andrei’s face visibly fell – it sort of blanched when he realized that I was not another devoted dadaist, but was just the guy humping books for The Man. So I quickly played my multiple aces, perhaps in too-quick succession: I handed him my copy of Obituary Cocktail by Kerri McCaffety, which Andrei wrote the stellar introduction for. (Cocktail is my favorite New Orleans book – Kerri’s brilliant photography book on the bars and saloons of the city – and has a huge cult following in NO.) “I used to work for (the bookstore in New Orleans). (The co-owners) are good friends of mine.” He looked at me with mild surprise. “Oh yeah?” Then he flipped through the pages of Cocktail – “This is Kerri’s book.” “Yeah,” I said, “I know, but I really like your introduction.” Like I needed to explain this? How many people show up to his book signings – especially in Southern California – with Obituary Cocktail under their arms? “So, Marlena, what eez your last name?”, he asked the Russian girl, as he spoiled my copy of Obituary Cocktail with his hand writing. Apparently, we were done. “This is my Dada Guide”, I whispered, as I handed him my other book. He signed it with a straight signature, as if it were stock for the store – which is exactly what it became. He quickly scribbled his name in my ten copies for store stock, all the while talking to the Russian, and I was summarily dismissed when he just stopped signing at the end of the pile and never once looked up at me. I gathered the books and stepped away with my best serial killer smile, silently plotting the violent death of this obnoxious, Romanian P.O.S. (Its hard to rant without swearing.)
That’s it – I just packed up my gear and had to ride the elevator downstairs with Mr. Important Author, the library staff, and Marlena the Russian Muse. Never once did he thank me or my store – we had done two events with him on that day, sold 70 copies of his obscure, University Press philosophy book, and even fed him lunch, but he never even looked at me after I initially shook his hand. I’m writing about this because of the unusual nature of this encounter – again, of the hundreds of authors I’ve met, Andrei is the only one, really, who just doesn’t feel like giving me the time of day. It felt as if he were looking at me as a blemish on his otherwise perfect evening of holding court, as if I was a reminder of his true nature as a (gasp!) commercial entity. Why go out on tour at all if this is the reaction you deliver to the booksellers who pay your bills? Every other author I’ve met has expressed some degree of gratitude over the selling of their books – some writers much more famous than this Eastern European hack philosopher have been remarkably humble and genuine in their thanks. So what gives? Don’t get me wrong, this is not about his expressing gratitude to me or my bookstore – I don’t need that – it is about basic human interaction and a modicum of respect. To not even look at me again after I extended my hand? To have no reaction to my connection to his adopted hometown and his local bookstore there? You’re done with me, then I’m done with you. My only regret, though, is that I allowed his dirty claws to paw at my book, forever soiling it with his mark.