Sam McManis

Discoveries: Literary karaoke in Oakland is never off-key

Maddie Greene enthralls the crowd at Literary Karaoke at Diesel bookstore in Oakland with a reading from a zombie novel.
Maddie Greene enthralls the crowd at Literary Karaoke at Diesel bookstore in Oakland with a reading from a zombie novel.

Karaoke proceeded splendidly, a lively showing featuring some interesting, non-clichéd renderings, only a few fueled by “liquid courage,” a.k.a., the bottle of Bulleit strategically placed next to the microphone.

But then someone had to go and mention Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – not sing it, mind you, just invoke its hideous title – and spoil the whole thing. That insipid song would be stuck in my head all the way home. I just knew it.

Oh, if it had only been Anne Tyler …

See, this was literary karaoke, an ingenious idea and edifying exercise in which appreciative readers recited passages from writers’ works, a greatest-hit medley in which no one sang off-key – or sang at all, and certainly not treacly, overwrought Bonnie Tyler.

The third Saturday of each month, the independent Diesel, a Bookstore (official name, comma and all) in Oakland’s hip Rockridge District turns into a venue for book nerds to imbibe in their bibliophilic addictions by reading aloud prose delivered with all due ardor, in some cases helped along with a 90-proof shot to, uh, lubricate the throat for better diction.

Now, I’ve been to a lot of bookstores in my day – I have the credit-card debt to prove it – but this was the first I’d heard of such an event. I engaged in a Google Search to determine if this had become a “thing,” and found that, no, it’s pretty rare. A bookstore in Brooklyn, Word, publicized a Literary Karaoke night in 2011, but I saw nothing on its events page to show it’s still held. A Washington, D.C., bookstore presented a mash-up (read a story, sing a song), but that was just a one-off event for charity.

So, Diesel alone seems to be carrying the torch for the seemingly lost art of reading aloud. (Quick note: Reading your own work at Literary Karaoke is verboten. As Diesel’s Brad Johnson explained in his introduction, “It’s not a slam poetry night, unless you read Emily Dickinson slam-poetry style, which I’d really recommend.”) Attendance in March was sparse, I must say, but those who took the plunge and cracked a spine seemed undeterred. Maybe it was the bourbon speaking.

Late in the hourlong affair, after five brave souls read with insouciance from an eclectic mix of genres but before Johnson closed the night reading from Samuel Beckett’s whacked-out “Malone Dies,” first-time participant Maddie Greene of West Oakland was smitten. This, she said, certainly beat the karaoke we’ve come to know and mock.

“I think it’s just a brilliant idea,” she said. “I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on more. There were some really interesting follow-up questions about the books we were reading after we finished. I mean, when you come down from the karaoke stage, people don’t get into a serious discussion with you about Bonnie Tyler.”

Noooo! Here it came, seeping into every synaptic cleft of my gray matter, Turn around bright eyes …

I tried to think back to a clever turn of phrase someone read earlier in the evening, something, anything to dislodge this song snippet that’s a staple for karaoke lounge lizards. Every now and then I fall apart …

Nope. Wasn’t working. Despite that setback, the evening was thoroughly enjoyable, if a tad sedate for those who crave pulse-pounding frenzy. There is, after all, only so much gripping drama one can wring out of a five-minute recitation from Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Literary karaoke, after all, draws a more refined crowd, more viewers of PBS’ “American Masters” than Fox’s “American Idol.” So subdued, in fact, as to seem comatose at the start. It was Johnson’s job, therefore, to break the ice and get these bookworms to slither out of their protective jacket covers.

“It always starts off like this,” he said into the mike, as customers browsed and cast furtive glances his way, “where there are these 15 or so empty chairs, one or two people having arrived specifically for it and the rest it’s sprung upon, like a snake in the grass, fantastic. Yes, there will be awkward gaps. If you’re so inclined, you can read again. And here’s Kentucky’s friend, Bulleit bourbon, on hand to reward you or to give you the inspiration. Only readers get to have the bourbon. That just seems fair.”

Three people sidled up and settled in the front row. A young couple (that would be Greene and her boyfriend, “strictly here for moral support”) were perched in the back row, and yours truly shared the middle row with a man who brought a suitcase. (Yes, I planned to engage in Plimptonian participatory journalism and read, though I promise not to make this all about me.)

No one lunged for the mike, so Johnson read a passage from “The Mad and the Bad,” a 1972 crime novel by Frenchman Jean-Patrick Manchette: “Julie was dazed, her head, her eyes, were in a fog.” And in a moment, he had the crowd hooked and even brought a few browsers over to listen in. “… She slapped the sales girl violently across the face and set off at a run …”

Polite applause, sustained enough to goad a pony-tailed woman in a puffy Patagonia jacket, Sarah Picker of Oakland, to grab a book off a display table and start reading aloud, sans mike. It was a section from the bio “Becoming Richard Pryor,” by Scott Saul, in which the making of Pryor’s cult movie, “The Mack,” shot in Oakland, is detailed. Picker’s restrained, clipped rendering lent a certain incongruous academic air to the tale of the filmmaker’s entanglements with the Black Panther Party on the set and Pryor’s drug-fueled carousing. Imagine, say, a prim, respectable NPR anchor reading, “Richard partied with three or four women throughout the night, getting high on coke and champagne …” and you can see why the karaoke crowd tittered with approval.

One of those awkward silences fell after Picker finished, so I jumped in. I had plucked a Lorrie Moore short story collection off the shelves and read the opening paragraphs from one piece: “When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries – a fibbing fruit, a story store – and now she had a job in one.” I looked up about halfway through and no one had left, so I plowed on. Scattered (pity?) applause afterward.

But that opened the flood gates. Anne Quincy of Redwood City next read an excerpt from David Talbot’s “Season of the Witch,” about the abduction of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. The pleasure of hearing a respectable, white-haired woman in a white cable-knit sweater reading dialogue such as, “Dig it, Cinque, I know you won’t hurt Patty unless The Man …” was sublime. The night took a more serious turn when Quincy’s brother, Robert, a recent transplant from New England, prefaced a Darwin bit on acclimatization by saying, “I’ve recognized the odd blooming of various trees and plants and how so many of them seem to be without leaves.”

Before we could get bummed by what climate change has wrought, Greene grabbed the mike and said, “Well, I’m going to bring down the level of discourse.” She held up “Pontypool Changes Everything,” a novel by Tony Burgess. (The plot: A virus in the language turns everyone into zombies.) Then she uncorked the bourbon bottle, splashed a little in a plastic cup. “So,” she said, pounding it down, “courage.”

She had us won over after: “The virus had hid silently for decades up in the roofs of adjective …”

All that was left was for Johnson to close with stream-of-consciousness Beckett. If this had been a different crowd, it would’ve flicked lighters and swayed to the rhythm of the prose, like enthralled concertgoers. As it was, we all chuckled heartily at the Beckettian closing riff: “The last word is not yet said between me and – yes, the last word is said.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis


Diesel, a Bookstore

5433 College Ave., Oakland

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