“Betrayal”: Live at Franklin Park with Heidi Julavits, Touré, Fiona Maazel, Leah Umansky, and Joseph Riippi


Franklin Park, just off the prettier end of Eastern Parkway and Franklin Avenue, has quickly become perhaps the best place in Brooklyn to see live literature. Thanks to the superb efforts of host and curator Penina Roth, who verifies that success comes from being kind to anyone and everyone, the high pedigree of authors who’ve graced the Franklin Park Reading Series at 618 St. John’s Place in recent months has included Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, Michael Showalter, Colson Whitehead, Sam Lipsyte, and Gary Lutz to name but a few. Moreover, four dollar drafts and a gorgeous stage and backdrop go a long way. Look: I live in Bushwick. I frequently attend readings in which a cat’s litter box is utilized in plain sight of the audience and attending author. In contrast, just prior to the show getting under way, the Franklin Park bartender played a projection of Floyd Mayweather’s 2009 textbook dismantling of Juan Manuel Marquez, intentionally or otherwise setting the tone for a night of prowess and precision. The FP series is a classy affair, packed to the (proverbial) rafters. I independently ran into kids from both college and high school here: folks you would not find in the dusty crypts of your local indie bookseller. That’s the raw power of cheap microbrews amidst affordable real estate. You could meet someone attractive at these readings. And I don’t mean “Jonathan Ames lookalike, handsome with a dash of forced sodomy” attractive. I mean a true blue looker.

Monday evening’s five readers sat at an antique desk under a orbital light of goldenrod which gave the impression of a World War I cockpit, or one of FDR’s fireside chats, as mid-show author Fiona Maazel was quick to note. The night’s theme was “Betrayal”, with each writer bringing a thoughtful take to the subject, and none committing such acts of treachery upon their audience. It can be tough to rangle a crowd that’s three “happy” hours into a seventy-five degree Monday evening, but Joseph Riippi and Leah Umansky proved up to the task. Riippi regaled us with a selection from A Cloth House, his melodic study of family out now on Housefire, with the rich baritone and demeanor of a younger, less stoned Steve Agee. Umansky’s poetry, culled from her site I Am My Own Heroine, was as funny as it was tenderly told.

After a brief but well-placed intermission (showmanship, people!), Touré (Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?) proved that the guy who my parents find so delightful on MSNBC’s Hardball is also the kind of guy who loves illicit threesomes and getting with other people’s girlfriends, all part of what he branded in his piece “the Game”. Trying to place what Toure uniquely had on stage, I was reminded of Anthony Jeselnik explaining to Riki Lindhome his conscious intention to create a stand-up comedy persona like that of “the Devil”, perpetually cool and in control. Toure has such amused villainy in spades: an old school cad and sometime heel who grins wider the more wickedly his prose unfurls, knowing his skill will win him over to us. Last came Heidi Julavits, of her new and much talked about novel The Vanishers. To see her read in person is to experience what Karen Russell aptly dubbed “Julavits’s gift for distilling complex desires”, and the distillation proves intoxicating. She is unafraid to interject an off the cuff joke or thread of thought, wearing the text as a well-worn shirt rather than a straight jacket. She possesses a jubilance that would help one in person better understand her beloved mantra penned at the founding of The Believer: “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!”

Yet while each of these readers earn high marks and thanks, the aforementioned Fiona Maazel deserves special mention. Reading from a yet-to-be-published story for Conjunctions, Maazel wove threads of a modern family in flux with visceral depictions of the bombing of Dresden in dizzying fashion. Not to mention that the amalgam proved funny as hell. The family’s matriarch taking a beau named Philip Hoffman felt entirely apt, as Maazel writes with the humor and unabashedly strange vantage point of a Charlie Kaufman, her piece seemingly always in the state of mutation, much like Kaufman and Hoffman’s under-appreciated pairing Synedoche, New York. And when reading Maazel’s voice is stately but alluring, always drawing us closer.

One final note: during the show’s intermission, I realized the Franklin Park Reading Series even films post-reading interviews with their authors, wedged between a hot shot basketball arcade game and a skeeball alley. “Now this…” I thought with much appreciation, “…this is some Floyd Mayweather shit.”

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