The last thing a writer feels like doing on a day when it seems that everything is just out of his reach is bask in the glory of another writer who actually made it. Sometimes the days can consist of getting your ego beaten as if it owed someone money. Standing in the holy light of someone who made it makes the jealousy gland puff up like a spiny blowfish.
My day was one that felt like the last link in a long chain of serious ego beatings. A magazine editor rejected a whole batch of story pitches. Another was making my day even more frustrating.
The only project that did get an OK from my gaggle of editors was a review of writer and actor BJ Novak's live book reading and talk at the Dallas Museum of Art about his new collection of short stories called One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.
He was introduced to the packed crowd by Will Clarke, the author of supernatural humor novels such as Lord Vishnu's Love Handles and The Worthy. Novak strode out to the podium and immediately noted the size of the crowd and the venue.
"The size is terrific. That's what she said," Novak said followed by a wave of laughter and applause. "I'm contractually obligated to say that phrase once a day for the rest of my life."
He wasted no time jumping into the stories that the crowd wanted to hear starting with one of the more fantastic and creative entries called "The Rematch," a sequel to Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare" that Novak said bugged him even from an early age because it uses one, overhyped race to determine a cliched beatitude. The concept is silly, but he takes the subject matter as seriously as a sportswriter detailing the dark spiral of an athlete's post-glory days, much like Al Stump following around the perpetually angry and mean days of an aging Ty Cobb. Of course, that makes it funnier.
He also didn't try to do the voices of his characters or talk like Jon Stewart trying to do an impersonation of Senator Mitch McConnell for the tortoise. All of the stories he read that night were his and his alone and it actually made them more engaging because he's not trying to stuff a voice in your head. It was also refreshing to see an actor/writer not try to remind us that he's not an actor.
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In fact, he displayed a rare persona of genuine gentleness throughout the night, even in places where he might be allowed to go a bit gonzo with the characters in stories like "The Rematch" or "One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie". He's not trying to sell his creations like a salesman hocking vegetable choppers at a flea market. He has created unique and interesting stories with characters ranging from the sublime to the absurd, and he let them stand on their own legs. He can even turn those more over-the-top and absurd characters like the aforementioned Willie, a "bro" in the strictest sense of the word whose drinking seems to have caught up with him, into someone you actually wish you had in your life.
Even stories that seem more absurd can have a strange sweetness to them that you don't suspect when you hear the title or the description such as "The Impatient Billionaire and The Mirror for the Earth," the story of, well, an impatient billionaire who really wants to build a mirror that can reflect the entire Earth.
Stories like these make you realize that Novak is a rare, gentle comic soul who clearly is just happy to be alive and able to entertain crowds with his gift, an observation and personal revelation that came up during the Q&A with the crowd when he talked about one of his first jobs in show business. He has an even rarer gift too: the ability to make people feel they are better for having shared such an experience with him and the hope that we'll all be able to reach the same level of gentle comic nirvana he seems to have found long before he became a familiar name.
"When I was a prankster on Punk'd Season 2, I thought I could die happy here," Novak said. "Everyone said that this could lead to something. I was like 'Lead to what? I'm here! Ashton Kutcher is whispering things in my ear and I'm fucking with Usher. I've arrived.'"