Last Friday afternoon the large ballroom on the fourth floor of the Ambassador Hotel was loud with gypsy-tinged melodies and the murmur of middle-aged book lovers slowly getting drunk. This was Wordstock, brainchild of local author Larry Colton and a weeklong orgy of the modern book as a benefit to promote reading and literature in Portland area schools. The goal was to make up for what Colton considers the failed duties of some “lame-ass politicians.”
Here at the Ambassador was Wordstock’s invitation-only Night of Literary Feasts, where for $5,000 per group the “who’s who” of Portland could dine with the likes of Susan Orlean, Jane Auel and other nationally published authors. First, however, the guests were pre-lubricated with a reception and book signing complete with hosted bar. Along with Orlean and Auel there was dangerous writer Tom Spanbauer, book luster Nancy Pearl and the rabble rousing, counterculture hero who took Groucho Marx on his first acid trip, Paul Krassner.
Krassner, a man who once wrote of a sexual encounter between President Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy’s corpse, said he feels a sense of personal continuity being at a book festival that borrows its name in part from the revolutionary late ’60s music festival. “It’s taking an attitude of an optimistic time and putting [it] in another context,” Krassner noted, adding, “It’s a little less muddy … unless some of the text is muddy.” As he spoke, people approached with books, which he offered to sign, even if they weren’t his own.
There is one problem with putting a group of authors in with a group of readers: the latter will rarely recognize the former. Stand too long in one place with a certain look on your face and someone will no doubt ask, “Are you one of the authors?”
Saturday night at the Keller Auditorium, the lobby was filled with the intelligent smiles and wild eyes of Norman Mailer fans. The house was almost full when the stage lights came up. The audience sat patiently through readings by two Wordstock writing contest winners and laughed heartily through the scandalous introduction of Mailer by Krassner, who offered that once, in answer to a question about circumcision, Mailer told him that it was done because without it the Jews would break their infants’ noses instead.
Mailer took the stage after intermission looking every bit like the aged Bilbo Baggins of the literary world. He claimed that the circumcision comment was either made up by Krassner or was a result of a “bad marijuana trip.” He read from his work on the mechanics of writing: character, plot development and first versus third person narration before fielding questions from the audience. Unfortunately, the odd, rambling “questions” of the Portland audience were first filtered through a man known only as Scott before reaching the hearing-impaired Mailer. This made for rousing, if confusing, answers from the author who lays into the media and the Republican administration with vehemence, much to the delight of the Portland crowd.
Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center wakes up after two days’ worth of wide-eyed readers wandering among booths from various publishers and bookstores, sitting with rapt attention in front of one of the five stages or attending workshops in a series of “breakout rooms.” The cacophony was intense as the sound systems from the five stages that circle the massive meeting room clashed. Sara Vowell, author of Assassination Vacation and contributor to the radio program “This American Life,” compared the setting to a monster truck rally as she read to an eager crowd standing shoulder to shoulder.
The headlining authors for the day, Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, and Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, read in the large, second floor ballroom. Sebold read the first harrowing chapter from her third book, a work in progress about a woman who suffocates her dementia-addled mother. Afterward, the mood of the room was somewhat muted. Orlean then immediately changed the tone with three charming and funny readings from her three books.
Once the reading was finished a footrace broke out to join the book-signing line. Was this a sure sign of the festival’s success? Well, if you add the over one million dollars raised for Portland schools and Mailer’s offer to help Colton take the festival international, then yes. Thanks to Wordstock, Portland has once again been proved a reader’s paradise.