This one’s from Jim Gavin’s incredible story “Elephant Doors” in his debut collection, Middle Men. I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that continually run the border between funny and sad. “Elephant Doors” is about a PA on a Jeopardy-like quiz show who also does standup open mics around LA. If there’s ever been a story written for me, it’s this one. Here’s the protagonist, Adam, after bombing at a mic:
Driving home, he couldn’t see the city. he could only see himself, from the perspective of the audience, witnessing his every weak-minded pause, his every false gesture. He had been putting himself through this for almost two years and he had nothing to show for it. No agent, no booked gigs, nothing. He thought of all the people who had been regulars at El Goof when he first started going, how he would suddenly notice, after a few weeks, that they were no longer there. At some point they had vanished, melting back into the general population. He felt sorry for these people, especially the ones who actually had talent, but after a bad night onstage he often wondered if there wasn’t something deeply satisfying in their decisions. At times he craved the sweet tantalizing oblivion of giving up. His favorite word in the English language was “stick-to-it-iveness,” but the longer he hung around, the more he felt the enormity of his delusion. A voice in his head kept taunting him with the old gambling adage—if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s you—which seemed like an intensely American piece of wisdom. He always figured that being aware of his own suckerhood would somehow redeem him from it, but now he wasn’t so sure. He was waiting for something to click. In books and interviews all of his comic heroes had described a moment onstage when, after stumbling for may years, they suddenly, and oftentimes inadvertently, became themselves. Now and then he touched the contours of his own personality, the one that seemed to entertain his family and friends, but most of the time he felt totally disembodied. The words coming out of his mouth seemed like they could’ve been coming out of anyone’s mouth. He was desperate to become who he was, to not care what others were thinking, to dissolve the world around him. He decided that this elusive state of being demanded either total humility or total narcissism. Right now Adam existed in a no-man’s-land between the two.
I did standup just once (or thrice in one week at one venue) and I hated it, and though I subsequently wtote about what I felt and went through, it didn’t come near as accurate and moving as this bit. But here’s the thing: this paragraph gets at not only why I was bad at doing standup, it gets at why I’m bad at doing life. Why we all are, maybe.
Jim’s coming to talk to my students Wednesday about the uses of humor in writing. At this point I’m just bragging. One last thing I’ll say is that there are so many places in this paragraph where a lesser writer would end and let the sentence echo in the whitespace between this graf and the next one. This one sprawls in ways that totally pay off.