When I think of the many readings Ive
attended and given at Duttons, one always stands out: a Sunday
afternoon, many years ago, a program of readings by homeless writers,
with a smattering of L.A. literary celebs. We were each to read for 10
minutes, no more (in their dreams). One literary celeb, who will remain
unnamed, ignored the time limit, seduced by her own voice, her
brilliance, and droned on for a good half-hour with no indication she
intended to quit her perch. Her story, I remember, involved a kind of
quasi-incest scene between a college-age girl and her rich father, some
fondling and flirting, all breathlessly intoned, meant to be shocking,
perhaps, but instead banal. I stood next to one of the homeless, a
black man patiently awaiting his turn but nonetheless listening
carefully to her story. When madam finally quit the mike, he turned and
looked at me, smiled and said, rather wickedly, Sounds like she kinda
liked it, doncha think? I find that I can never think of the woman who
read that day without those delicious words passing through my head.
Goodbye, Duttons! Thank you, Doug, and
everyone else who over the years helped to make that place so
brilliant; the intellectual dispensary of the Westside.
As host of a zillion author events at
Duttons Books, I have a snoot full of anecdotes. Among them: Eduardo
Galeano spinning magical tales on the spot; Mario Vargas Llosa being
suave in three languages; Anne Rice in Goth; Allen Ginsberg drawing
pictures of erect and dripping penises in the books of young men (and I
got a Buddha!); T.C. Boyle always asparkle and Kate Braverman winningly
sardonic. Jennifer Egan so gracious. Susanna Moore beguiling. Robert
Hughes was drunk but nonetheless learned and articulate. Edna OBrien
was jet-lagged, medicated and in bad temper and yet flashed her love of
Shakespeare and Yeats. Jonathan Franzen, not a literary bully, just
bleary-eyed and anxious. Who will shepherd these authors now?
I began haunting Duttons in the early 80s.
At least once a week Id come, as a pilgrim, to witness some luckier
writer read from a published work. I wanted so badly to become a writer
and I needed to hone my envy and ambition by seeing famous people
wallowing in the limelight. Far more satisfying than just desecrating
their pictures in Poets and Writers. The pleasure of examining the new
fiction on the front tables, the reassurance, sitting on the floor in
the front room at Duttons, reading (at length) from works I could only
aspire to one day write, knowing I, a reader, was in the only safe
place I knew in Los Angeles: the Palace of Reading.
When someone kindly asked, Are you finding everything youre looking for?, I looked up and there was this incredibly handsome silver-haired man with bright-blue eyes talking to me as if we were friends. Me, this rejected piece-of-shit writer whom he didnt know from Adam. Who nobody knew from Adam, and if they did, they tried to forget it as quickly as possible. But not at Duttons. Doug Dutton made my nothing self feel like a valued friend. This was a place where readers mattered. And its a standard to which Ive held every bookstore, and which few approach.
It wasnt just Doug, it was everyone he hired. Ive never seen a bookstore with such a knowledgeable staff. I remember going in once to find some book Id read about. Its something about a girl who had something about her face an accident or something? And Kristen said, Oh, you mean Autobiography of a Face . Its in the north room. We should have two copies. Ever after, when I go to a bookstore and ask for a book, and they dont know whether they have it or not, have to look it up on the computer, I always think, Youre not Duttons, are you?
finally did have a book (a young-adult book nobody had ever heard of,
then or since), I timidly called Lise Friedman, the event booker at
Duttons. Heart in mouth, I asked for a reading. I was local, I
promised that all my numerous relatives would come and each buy three
copies of the book. And wonder of wonders, the day came when I stood in
the courtyard of Duttons, where I had seen such jaw-droppingly
important writers as Robert Stone and Joyce Carol Oates, reading my
newly published novel to 30 of my closest relatives, plus the pantheon
of struggling L.A. writers who had been in workshop with me at one time
or another, who themselves eventually had their own readings there.
When you read in that courtyard, you truly had arrived.