Lit Crawl: Postcard From New York City

Suzanne Pettypiece

This past Saturday evening, contemporary literature lovers invaded ten beer-soaked bars scattered throughout Manhattan’s Lower East Side and East Village as part of the second annual Lit Crawl NYC—a two-hour bar hop serving up an eclectic taste of the New York City literary scene. Modeled after the Lit Crawl that is part of the San Francisco festival Litquake, now in its eleventh year, the New York City version—founded by Todd Zuniga, editor of Opium Magazine, and Suzanne Russo, a travel writer who served on Litquake’s executive committee—consisted of eleven short-format events followed by an after party where attendees, according to Zuniga, were invited to “high five and elbow bash.”

Going into Lit Crawl I had a few expectations: that the events would be livelier than ordinary readings and perhaps—no doubt invoked by the New Yorker’s recent portrait of a typical attendee as a book-headed, tattoo-laden rogue ready to pounce on the action—a tad grubbier and grittier too. I wasn’t let down. Lit Crawl was a chance for book lovers to let loose as only they know how to—with trivia, readings, and even BOMB-aoke!

Resisting the urge to shy away from the intimidating format, my husband and I chose as our first stop BOMB-aoke!, a competition in which audience members reenacted snippets of interviews between writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians, culled from the pages of Bomb magazine’s twenty-eight-year archive, to win a prize.

The event took place at the Gallery Bar, which, true to its name, is a narrow white-walled space featuring the found object and collage work of local artist Chad Porter. Three vibrant surfboards clung to the wall behind a sleek bar. A replica of an old-fashioned photo booth peeked out from behind a video screen readied for the night’s event.

Initially the crowd was thin—perhaps, I thought, because of the required audience participation or due to a last-minute venue switch—but after the first performance, in which Paul Morris, Bombs marketing director, broke the ice by pairing up with an audience member to reenact novelist Patrick McGrath having lunch with actor Wallace Shawn, people streamed in through the open garage door at the far end of the bar, quickly forming a crowd whose members joined in either as spectators or, rather surprisingly, participants.

With the sound of ice sloshing around in a martini shaker and cabs zipping by on the street just behind us, audience members chuckled with those acting out the interviews. Highlights included a 1997 interview in which actor Tim Roth prods the famously unattractive Steve Buscemi about his love scenes and a 1996 interview with Frances McDormand by Willem Dafoe, in which McDormand insists on being asked about the prosthetic breasts she had to wear for her role as a pregnant cop in Fargo.

Maybe it was the unexpected talent of the BOMB-aoke! participants, or perhaps it was the presentation by video artist and Flarf poet Brandon Downing, who projected shorts featuring pterodactyls and homophonic translations, that caused the allotted forty-five minutes to pass so quickly, but we didn’t even get to the Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer interview. Before we knew it, the BOMB-aoke! winner was announced and given a vintage issue of the magazine. Those wishing to move on to another event hustled out just as the Farrar, Straus and Giroux crowd moved in for Ground Up and Consumed, a presentation featuring Michael Idov, Carrie McLaren, and other contributors to Ad Nauseam: A Survivors Guide to American Consumer Culture, which will be published by Faber & Faber in June.

Unlike San Francisco’s Litquake—for which streets in close proximity are blocked off and events are held in cafés, bars, and even Laundromats, as I was informed at the after party by Litquake founder Jack Boulware—the New York venues were far enough apart that it was difficult to get to more than a few events. (Harper Perennial’s Silk Ties vs. Black Eyes: A Night of Sartorial and Pharmacological Literary Trivia, for instance, was about seven blocks from the Bomb event.)

While other literary enthusiasts headed for Opium Live or The Crowd Goes Wild: Literary Basketball League Reads From Hoops Classics, we headed deeper into the Lower East Side to a microreading—six readings under three minutes—hosted by one of the newest literary magazines to come out of New York City: Gigantic, a publication of short prose and art.