The Greatest Reading In The World?

On Oct 25 10, Max Cherney, a poet and MFA student at California College of the Arts, hosted “The Greatest Reading In The World” at Coco Luxe Confections in the Haight Ashbury, featuring CCA graduate students Ashley Brim, Daniel Baloo Ishofsky and Dustin Acton.

I knew this event would most likely not live up to its name, but I love the Haight and don’t mind some good chocolate. I knew my senses would be stimulated by sweet cocoa and the lively street scene: homeless youth and pit bulls, hippies and tourists, the scent of marijuana, the sounds of street guitar and harmonica…

I also knew that this would be Daniel Baloo Ishofsky’s debut public reading. Daniel is scheduled to appear tonight at Quiet Lightning, so I was interested in hearing him.

The reading had a pleasing format: three writers of fiction, reading for around 20 minutes each, with short breaks between, allowing for conversation and the chance to clear our heads. (Or muddy them, I suppose, depending on your preferences.)

Ashley Brim read first. Her story was astonishing and ambitious. A narrator begins by describing an unfortunate night with a man who vomits in her bed and leaves quickly in the morning without cleaning up after himself. As the story takes an unexpectedly surreal turn, the narrator sets off with hound, rifle and crossbow to track “the schmuck” down. By the time she has finished, Ms. Brim has taken us on a hero’s quest through settings as varied as a church, a hospital and a park filled with lovers, explored themes of sin and redemption, and reflected upon the death of family members and the difficulty of accepting and living with injustice. Telling her story with humor, pathos, sentiment and occasional horror, Ms. Brim displays a distinctive voice with a surprising range.

Daniel Baloo Ishofsky then read from his novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Faithful. Jordan, the young protagonist, is carrying by backpack the cremated remains of his grandfather and great uncles to Austria, to scatter them at the death camp at Mauthausen. I am struck by how aptly Mr. Ishofksy reveals Jordan’s state of mind with this effective bit of description: “The rows of sunflowers speeding by the side of the road made Jordan nauseous.” Mr. Ishofsky takes his time describing the journey with careful observations of the cheap hotels, the food, the humorous hired driver. He allows his omniscient narrator to reflect on Jordan’s memories of his immigrant family, imagining his uncles as young men and recalling the time when his grandfather told him about the death camp. We eventually see the camp through Jordan’s eyes. We’ve heard these stories before but understand that each family must retell and process the memories and Mr. Ishofsky’s exploration of this much-visited territory is straightforward and emotionally honest. Jordan wants to say to the gatekeeper of the death camp museum, “Do you realize how disgusting it is I have to pay to get in here? I should get in free. My family has been here before.” Although such holocaust stories have been told and told again, there will always be young writers who must tell them anew for themselves, to keep them real, to honor our families, our history, and to move on. Mr. Ishofsky is meeting this burden with grace, insight, sincerity, and some very fine writing.

Dustin Acton read last, presenting a story called “The Beating of the Largest Drum.” He said it was a story, but was it a poem? Perhaps it was a dream. At times, as he read, I thought it wasn’t writing at all but music or painting. Difficult to follow, but always fascinating, this reading is one of the most unusual I have ever experienced at a spoken word event. Unusual, certainly. Impressive? How can I judge something so different? You listen. You decide. … Arnie jumps off buildings. It is his passion. Each time he jumps he nearly dies. “He felt,” ruminates Mr. Acton, “… that in his growing catalog of injuries he was gaining as much as he lost. In a secret way, the loss of each new bone’s rigid virginity lightened him as it meant he had recreated it in his own broken image.”Arnie, it seems, is seeking religious illumination by flirting with death. He doesn’t want to die; he just wants to know what it would be like. He believes that at the moment of death, some sort of illumination must come and he is hungry for it. … There is a love afair. The story proceeds but becomes ever more hallucinatory, surreal and poetic. It is a feverish dream. The language becomes more and more full of images, repetitions, starts travelling in circles. Who is the “I” that narrates? We don’t know. Images and sounds begin to accrue and repeat: cracked mirrors, hair brushes, broken bones, a mysterious jelly fish, a rocking chair, sirens, giggles. Are we inside a dream? Perhaps we are at the moment of Arnie’s death. The words come in waves, repeating, changing, repeating, changing. And at the end there is a drum which is the beating of a heart: the largest drum. … I owe to Mr. Acton one of the most startling literary experiences I have had in 6 months of attending readings several times a week.

Host Max Cherney is an enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit who says he plans to curate more events in the future. I believe this means we can all anticipate good things to come.