Literature 5-20-2008

LITERATURE: The Miracle Tour Confessions, Part 2

Debut novelist Geoff Herbach and his buddy and fellow writer Sam Osterhout offer up another installment in their quirky, always entertaining road diary of their time across the country on a book tour for "The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg."

Sam at Hilton
Days Inn, Lakewood

We hit big traffic about 15 miles outside of Chicago. I’d never driven into that city, but Herbach smoked in the passenger seat and said traffic was endemic and it could be a while before we got anywhere. I was starting to have anxiety from all the coffee and the driving. What if we get into an accident or we can’t find a parking space or we get mugged by some angry Polacks? What if dinner is expensive and is not appropriately delicious? What if some woman hits on me and I feel bad? What if Herbach finds all my worry grating and stays up all night, angrily staring at me while I sleep, the cherry of his cigarette glowing through the darkness from the chair in the corner of our hotel room?
     Dang it.
     I started cracking jokes, because that’s what I do. I said, “Did I tell you I had to go to the doctor last week? I’ve been having some trouble with my stomach.”
     “What?” Herbach was genuinely concerned. “What’s going on? “
     “I don’t know. I’ve been having trouble in the mornings.”
     “I had no idea! Are you okay?! What did the doctor say?”
“He asked if I was going number one, and I said, ‘Sure, doctor. I go every morning at six, just like clockwork.’ Then he asked if I was going number two.”
     “What did you say?” Herbach was frantic. He was so worried.
     “I said, ‘I’m like a clock, doctor, I go number two at seven o’clock every morning, right on the dot. So my doctor says, ‘Then what’s the problem?’ And I say, ‘I don’t get up until eight.’”
     Herbach looked at me and considered this briefly. I tittered nervously and nudged him, “Heh heh. Am I right?” He took a drag from his cigarette. “Hmm,” he said, “I think this is our exit.” I pulled off and we found the bookstore very quickly, although I was right to worry about parking.
     When Herbach gets anxious he smokes and gets quiet. The bookstore was full of dingbats, so we found an empty Thai food place next door and continued our anxiety. We hadn’t yet begun to even consider where we were going to stay that night.
     My apartment in Minneapolis is a mess. I still have full boxes from my move, and instead of furnishing the place with the appropriate tables and bookshelves, I keep buying kitchen appliances. I can cook you something very nice, but we’ll have to eat it at your place. I’ve been living a rather transient lifestyle for a little while. During the week I work full-time, and on weekends I’m either rehearsing or performing in the Electric Arc Radio Show. And because my girlfriend lives in New York, during any break in the action, I’m usually traveling to see her.

     Herbach picked up a wifi signal at the Thai place and checked his email, Facebook, Amazon ranking, MySpace, sports scores, CNN, and did a little shopping at CB2 online. All of this took about ten minutes. Herbach’s a genius. I got online and started searching for hotels.
     I got hit by car last August while riding my bike. I’d never been hit by a car before, but I’ve been in bike accidents. There’s a protocol. You first see if you can move. If so, then you feel your head to see if it’s bleeding. Then you scan your body for the damage, figure out if anyone saw it happen; and, then, if it’s bad enough, you call someone to get you. It’s all a natural thing you do. You don’t even have to think about it.
     In Chicago the anxiety we’d been feeling all day reached the level of panic. The bookstore where we were reading that night didn’t carry Geoff’s book, which was…odd. Geoff smoked so many cigarettes that if he stood directly in front of a bright light so only his silhouette was visible, you’d be able to see smoke rise from his skin like the sun’s corona during an eclipse. He could simultaneously take a drag and bite his fingernails. It was like Cirque Du Soleil.
     When I got hit by that car, I lay in the middle of the intersection and knew I had to call someone. It was probably that bad. But there wasn’t anyone to call, except Herbach.
     Obviously, we made it out of Chicago. We actually rented an expensive hotel room downtown and slept so well. Chicago was the gateway to the East Coast for us. From there, we’d move on to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cambridge, Providence, and, finally, to New York, where my girlfriend was waiting for me. The next morning we pulled out onto the highway and headed East and didn’t really know what to expect about anything. Our lives were unpredictable.

     Yes, I felt rested. We stayed in a Hilton in Chicago, which is ridiculous. Oh, but I was rested. So rested, in fact, my memory of reading in a bookstore that “forgot” to order my book took on a crystalline hyper-detailed clarity (colors, people’s clothing, the bookseller reading a comic book in back). What’s the point of doing a book tour? Nobody there, whether they liked the reading or not, could buy my book at the store. They could, however, buy pornography. There was plenty of porn at the store. The bookseller didn’t listen to the reading. He paged through a comic book. He wouldn’t be ordering the book, even though he now remembered he was supposed to. Herbach: 0; the forces working against first-time authors 231 (the number of points I assign a total disaster). We left Chicago the opposite of happy. But, rested (and substantially poorer – although genius Sam did book the Hilton on Priceline).
     I have the feeling the book is doing really poorly. It’s strange. I’m getting emails from perfect strangers telling me how much they love the book, how it really got to them, how it kept them guessing and turning pages, and instead of thinking, “Fucking A, yes!” I’m thinking, “Jesus, I’m a disappointment. My Amazon ranking is 348,000.” Amazon is the bad feeling I get. The Amazon rankings fluctuate radically. I ordered a book to see if I could affect them. The Miracle Letters leapt in an hour from 500,000 to 85,000. This whole thing is a disaster. Maybe if the bookseller in Chicago had remembered to order the book, all the people who read the really favorable review in Time Out Chicago would buy it and then tell their friends about it, and then their friends might order it on Amazon and I might climb in the rankings so I can feel okay about myself. I know this is stupid, but still.
     Meanwhile, we’re driving across Indiana and Sam is looking at me tenderly. “What?” I ask.
     “You’re a good friend. Remember when that car hit me?”
     “Remember when you moved to New York?” I shout at him.
     “I haven’t moved to New York,” he says.
     “Not yet,” I say, then light my twenty-seven thousandth cigarette.
     Indiana is flat. Ohio is also, for most of the state.
We arrive in Lakewood, OH outside of Cleveland and my anxiety skyrockets. We’ve booked ourselves in this tiny, hipster coffee shop that seems best suited for some kind of Ani DiFranco stylist. It is not built for a book tour, for a book author published by a major American publisher (okay, Random House is actually owned by a German conglomerate that likely also owns pharmaceutical companies, etc.). There are young hipsters hanging at tables talking whatnot about nothing remotely bookish (the next generation Grand Theft Auto was about to be released). “Why am I not Kimya Dawson?!” I shout at Sam.
     “What?” he asks. “This place is great,” he says.
     I am not hip. I am nearly forty. I am a dork in jeans from the Gap. I have no ass to speak of and thus my jeans are ill-fitting. Sam is pretty and is wearing Blu-Blocker sunglasses. He looks like a young Serpico. He is an easy conversationalist and could hang with Kimya Dawson, saying clever things about Van Sant movies. This is his kind of place, not mine. Furthermore, we have no place to stay in the Cleveland area and I have overeaten and smoked too many cigarettes and my Amazon ranking is very, very low. I roll my eyes across the seated hipsters. Nausea. More disaster.
     Two things happen that make this night one of the greatest ever: First, there is a Days Inn a few blocks away with only a smoking room left (delicious!). Second, the much pierced and tattooed barista/beer slinger smiles sweetly at us, tells us she’s looking forward to the reading, and then gives us plastic cups with our names on them with which we are to drink all the free Brooklyn Lager we could possibly desire. “Heard your book is really good,” she tells me.
     “I love you, too,” I whisper.
     Actually, three things happen. Although the place never fills up, entirely, there is a crowd. An excellent, little engaged crowd. We’re on the docket with a young fellow named Lee who plays guitar and does stand-up. He is fantastic and fun and earnest. We drink beer. We talk to everyone in the place. We stand up and read and the small crowd whoops, and claps, and jumps up and down. Lee plays guitar, and we all try to sing along, even though we don’t know the words. We sit in little groups and talk about music (these tight, black-jeaned 80s-style New Wave kids don’t look like they’re into classical music, but a couple are). We go outside and smoke and talk about skateboarding. “I think I love skateboards,” I say. These kids buy my book off me. Several don’t have money. I give my book to them. As the place closes, a young woman says, “I’m learning to play the harp. It’s my passion.”
What do I care about Amazon rankings? Really. How could I be such an idiot, such a jerk?
     Back at the hotel, just so jacked up, Sam and I climb into bed. I light a cigarette, blow smoke and smile huge. “What a night,” I say. I look over at Sam. He’s staring at the ceiling. He’s completely drunk.
“I love my girlfriend,” Sam says. “She lives in New York.”
“I know,” I tell him. My stomach tightens a little. I snuff out the cigarette, turn and shut off the light. I try not to think about stupid Amazon.
     The next day, inexplicably, Sam and I drive to Niagara Falls.

>>Stay tuned for part III of this adventure, which brings our heroes from Niagara Falls to the last leg of their journey and back home again. <<

About Geoff: Geoff Herbach is co-founder of the Lit 6 Project, a group that runs beer-fueled literary events around the Midwest. He is also a founding member of The Electric Arc Radio Show, a literary-musical tragi-comedy, which has aired on Minnesota Public Radio, starring four sad writers who live in a decrepit house and spend time fighting over the television remote and stealing appliances from local stores rather than writing.
     His debut novel, The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, was just released this April from Three Rivers Press. Tish Cohen, author of Town House, called the book, “…a darkly comic, extraordinary peek into the delicate mind of a suicidal no-hoper.” Herbach has hope and an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University.

About Sam: Sam Osterhout is co-founder of the Lit 6 Project and The Electric Arc Radio Show (see above). His short stories can be heard on Minnesota Public Radio and in bars and bookstores across the country.