Every author who speaks at the National Book Festival enjoys an extra benefit onstage, one that doesn’t come with the typical reading or appearance. No, on the National Mall, each author gets a straight man—-somebody who has to stay poker-faced while the writer gets to crack wise. In this case, the straight men are the sign language interpreters assigned to each tent. (Though in my unscientific survey, they were mostly women.)
During his early-afternoon appearance at the Fiction & Mystery Pavilion yesterday, Sherman Alexie was riffing about his childhood on a Native American reservation, particularly about a dentist who was stingy with Novocaine. If he ever sees that dentist again, Alexie said, “I’m gonna kick him in the balls.”
He stopped, looked at the interpreter. “I’m just curious: How’s that look signed?”
She obliged. “Balls” translates into a vaguely cupping gesture. Big laugh.
“Again. I’m gonna kick him in the balls.”
Maybe there’s something about vulgarity that inspires this. A few hours later, Garrison Keillor was delivering some jokey couplets about childhood—-“We ran like coyotes in big herds/And learned to smoke and say bad words”—-when he stopped to look at his interpreter, who was busily keeping up.
“I’m fascinated by you,” he said. “Show me ‘drinking beer’ again.”
She did. “I represent the low end of poetry,” he quipped.
It became a running gag. Mentioning the phrase, “whetted our appetite,” he paused to tell the interpreter, “That’s ‘whetted’ with an ‘h.'” By the time he got to a bit of doggerel about pissing, she was fully part of the act—-his verses kept returning to the phrase, “to pee, to piss, to take a leak,” and she kept dutifully signing it. Signing “piss” appears to require touching your nose.
It’d be wrong to recommend that every author take advantage of the presence of interpreters, who are people with a job to do. But the tents could occasionally use a dose of humor—-especially in the case of thriller/science fiction author Neal Stephenson. Stephenson has enjoyed a massive fan base ever since the release of his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, but the enthusiasm seemed to dampen once he began reading from his elephantine new novel, Reamde. As he plowed through a tedious extended passage about man turning on his cell phone, then getting into his car, then fussing with the GPS system, then thinking about the Wikipedia page about himself, particularly the accuracy of the Wikipedia page about himself, then thinking about the importance of keeping multiplayer-online-gaming servers running on the day after Thanksgiving—-the pages in Stephenson’s writing nook just fill themselves, I imagine—-I couldn’t help but wish there were somebody else for him to make a joke with. Or perhaps just somebody with a hook.