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What Is This Bee?

Art by Geoffrey Grahn

Then there was the woman in

Japan. She rose at the end of the reading to object to my voice. That is, she objected to the non-demonstrable fact that she could no longer read my work in her own interior voice because she would always hear my (piping? smoothly modulated? New York–accented?) voice in her head. I agreed that she had a point, but offered the tender suggestion that because of her rather sensitive condition she might in the future consider boycotting readings by authors she wanted to read in her own special little tiny voice that only talked to her when she was alone with a book. No sooner had she sat down than the bee man leapt up.

This man had a certain degree of difficulty with English. I had met him earlier in the day while sweeping through some public place in the grip of my keepers. He rushed up to me and exclaimed, "Boyle-san, I love you, I love your country, but I hate your politics." My gracious reply: "I love you, I love your country, and I have no politics. Come hear me read tonight." All right. So there we were, me onstage, he in the front row, a couple of hundred people, and the sensitive-voice woman just tucking herself back into her seat. Now, I must digress here a minute to set this up properly. I knew that the Japanese would not laugh aloud in public, no matter how funny the story, so I tried a different tack: I read a gripping and horrific piece in stead. Thus, "King Bee," the story of a couple seduced into adopting an older child, one with severe emotional problems — yea, pathologies — whose sole interest in life was bees. Bees, as you might imagine, play a leading role in this story, and the story, I think, had its effect. But now the politics man was raising his hand. "Yes?" I said, with a gracious bow.

He rose. He bowed. "Can you tell me, Boyle-san, what is this bee?"

I read and I read and I read. I read

to gargantuan crowds in Germany, where, for instance, this past fall I was treated to my second and third thoroughly inebriated crowds. I like the inebriated crowds: They hold nothing back. One of the readings was in the Tränenpalast (the Palace of Tears) in Berlin, the former checkpoint between East and West. No tears there anymore — they’ve transformed the place into a mammoth rock & roll club, with spine-melting sound and a full bar. They sold out that night, 500 prepaid tickets, and then they let another 150 in to sit on the floor in the aisles. There was a shattering roar when I stuck my head out between the curtains. They gave me three ovations before I’d even opened my mouth. "Come on," I said, "you make me feel like Madonna." More howls, more roars. Finally, I gave them my key German phrase — "Würden Sie bitte ihren Fuss von meinem Ohr wegnehmen?", which means, roughly, "Would you please remove your foot from my ear?" — and that settled them down all right. Shrill howls, louder roars.

Ah, yes. And I, humble scribbler and inditer of humble phrases, just eat it up.

I also read a couple of years ago with Patti Smith in Central Park on a hot, hot night, 7,000 people spread out on blankets in the dark. Some of those, I suspect, were inebriated too.

Now, obviously, the opening gambit is vitally important in these situations. I always rely on the ridiculous to break down the resistance of the tougher audiences (the ones composed mainly of people just released from prison, for instance, or the over-90 crowd, or the deaf, dumb and blind). I casually make a few utterly preposterous remarks, announce that I’m going to read a story so funny they’ll be gagging for breath and getting right down on their hands and knees to chew at the legs of chairs, and launch into it — and hope for the best. Somehow, because the gods must be smiling down on me, it works. Usually. On Letterman, all I had to do was walk onstage and the crowd burst into laughter. (A bit disconcerting: Was it my tie? My shoelaces? My hair? Or lack thereof?) No matter: Ride with it. Entertain them. Readings (not to mention talk shows) are not occasions for plumbing one’s deepest ontological ruminations and laying out one’s most abstruse fictional configurations: They are for entertainers, fun, joy, a time to revel in the word and the rhythm of the sentence. Be shameless. It helps.

I have a dear friend famous for his brilliant oral interpretations of his own work. I have heard him many times. Once, at UCLA, he spotted me in the crowd before his reading, pulled me aside, and asked if I’d heard him read such and such a piece before. I had — the very last time I attended one of his readings. He frowned, went off with a worried look, and changed his entire program so as not to run the risk of boring me, a single set of ears among hundreds. This is not dreamt of in my philosophy, Horatio. No, I believe in shtick. I believe in finding something that works (short, funny, a first-person narrator helps) and using it time and again, like a comedian or a biblical scholar.

Still, a good story — one that moves and illuminates — will hold them, I think, if you read it with joy and persuasion. On the Tortilla Curtain tour (a mere 25 cities in this country and then off to Europe, and god I wonder what I’m doing with my life), I read a new story I was hot on at the time, just the sort of thing I like to lay on all of you out there — starts funny, heartwarming character, novel situation, aren’t we having fun?, and then turns grim as Bosnia — and it worked, though it took a full 50 minutes to read. No one asked me about feet-in-ears or bees during the Q&A, because they were all trying to catch their breath before we shifted gears back into the absurd.

Finally, and let me warn you, there are your friends. They show up. They love you. But they, like you, are major-league hams, and they can’t fathom why you’re onstage and they’re not. So they listen in the dark, with all the rest of them, and lie in wait for the Q&A. In the spirit of generosity and friendship, and after the first 10 questions have already gone down, you recognize them. "Yes, son," you say. "You in the back." And then your friend rises with two questions on his lips: "How old are you, anyway, and is your hair real?"

They call this the intellectual life.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s most recent book is

T.C. Boyle Stories (Viking).


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