The first Rahnd Table reading takes place
this Thursday, March 7, 8 p.m.
Most Wanted Fine Art, 5015 Penn Ave., Garfield.
Free and open to the public. Refreshments provided.
The day was July 31, 2012. The place was Lou’s Corner Bar, a dark little pub in Bloomfield. We didn’t expect much—just a casual meeting between two old friends. But as evening fell over Lou’s back porch, and the hot air eased into sultry warmth, the date of July 31st, 2012 became legendary in our lives: It was the day we founded the Rahnd Table.
Like heat-lightning, it came from nowhere.
Until that day, the Rahnd Table didn’t exist. After that day, it was our obsession.
First I sat down with Dan Parme. We ordered beer. We sat and talked. Dan had endured some tough years, and we’d lost touch. Lou’s was the perfect place to meet: We sat in dismembered bar-stool seats, which were perched on a picnic table. The porch overlooks a side street, which is perfect for people watching. Dan told me about family tragedies. I listened, we traded quips and anecdotes, and we refilled our glasses.
Then Dan told me about his book.
Dan is a writer with one published novel, Hungry, about cannibals in Pittsburgh. It’s dark and suspenseful and hilarious, and he put thousands of hours into its writing. But his new manuscript was something different—he found it hard to describe. An ensemble piece. Adult dramas unfolding. Some autobiographical elements, in the loosest sense. Real characters. Rich dialogue and description. Schlock, this was not.
“I haven’t worked on it for a while,” Dan confessed. He has worked as a waiter and bartender, for various restaurants, for over a decade. The routine, and lots of bad luck, had sucked him into a whirlpool of tedium. He loved his job, he loved the people, but his writing had suffered.
We ordered another round.
Nathan Kukulski arrived. Nathan is a renaissance man who manages Six Gallery Press. He is the only publisher I know who plays violin, rides a bike full-time, and works in a parking lot. Nathan and Dan had never met before. They shook hands.
“Nathan published my book last year,” I said.
“Oh, so you’re the publisher,” Dan said.
“That’s me,” said Nathan.
“We were talking about fiction we want to write,” I said.
“Right on!” Nathan said.
Then Nathan told us about a science fiction novel he was dying to compose. Something about people morphing into animals, large and small, and the difficulties they encounter. He hadn’t written a word, but he loved the idea, anyway.
Finally, Brendan Sullivan appeared. Tall and mustached, topped with a camouflaged trucker’s cap, Brendan lit up when he saw us. Brendan used to be editor-in-chief of The Original magazine, a glossy published by students at the University of Pittsburgh. Brendan had once commissioned a profile about me. We had a lot of mutual respect. Brendan had recently graduated.
“Where are you working now?” I asked, hoping the answer was The Atlantic.
“Kards, Unlimited,” Brendan replied.
A novelty store. A fantastic novelty store in Shadyside, but a novelty store nonetheless.
“We’re talking about fiction we want to write,” I said.
“Oh!” Brendan said. “Did I tell you about my novel?”
So Brendan summarized his (also unwritten) manuscript about a futuristic police state, where a writer is drawn into a coven of domestic terrorists.
“So, wait,” I said. “We all have novels we’re working on? Orwant to work on?”
We did. We raised glasses. We laughed and elaborated. Someone said, We should start a writing group. We got excited. We decided to meet again in two weeks. Same place, same day, same time. We would send each other manuscripts—no matter how much or little we wrote. We would critique, compliment, advise, dole out tough love. Our writing group would be fun. We would be friends, not just strangers in a writing program. We would trust each other, not sling criticism to impress the teacher. And slowly, we would write fiction, something only Dan had done in recent memory. We would walk away, many months later, with completed books. That was the idea, anyway.
For years, I’d gushed to Dan about the Algonquin Round Table, that mythic gathering of Jazz Age wits and bohemians.
“I want to start the Round Table of Pittsburgh,” I’d say, starry-eyed. “I want all of the coolest, funniest, most talented people I know in one room. I want them to cavort, and I want us all to become famous together. I want to be on Fresh Air in twenty years, and have Terry Gross say, ‘Wait a minute, youknow Dan Parme, the famous author?’ And I want to say, ‘Ofcourse I know Dan Parme. He’s an old friend. I also know Fred Betzner, the famous comedian—we were roommates! And Bill Holman, the explorer and filmmaker—we just got back from Copper Canyon. And Karen Baum, the indie cinema star—we did a 24-hour play festival together…’” And on and on.
In my mind, I could see our table crowded with Pittsburghese Kaufmans and Parkers, Harpos and Hemingways, writers, actors, playwrights, filmmakers—a roomful of banter and revelry, effortlessly sharp, celebrating the artistic life together.
“We should call it the Rahnd Table,” Dan offered.
Because in the Pittsburgh dialect, “town” becomes “tahn,” and “down” becomes “dahn,” and “round”—naturally—becomes “rahnd.” A joke that only a Western Pennsylvanian would get, right away.
We have met, like clockwork, every two weeks in Bloomfield—for seven months. We have written hundreds of pages of original prose. Each story has delivered us from the grim fog of Pittsburgh winter—to small-town New England, to South Oakland tenements, to the Arctic Circle, to the islands of Southeast Asia, to haunted houses, gas stations, secret libraries, dark public parks, dance clubs, police stations, and caverns. Our characters are cops, criminals, slackers, nurses, thugs, revolutionaries, retired football heroes, deadbeat musicians, and (yes) writers. Like oarsmen in a great galley, we row in tandem, and our ship pulls forward—slowly, but at least it moves. We have each passed a halfway point. We’re making noticeable progress. Soon, maybe sooner than we think, we’ll have completed first drafts.
Meanwhile, we have our rituals. We send new chapters by email. We read them in private. Dan always prints out hard copies. Everybody offered criticism, and everybody receives it. We finish with a shot of Jack Daniels.
At our new location, a restaurant buried deep in Bloomfield, the bartender always smiles when we appear. He asks how the workshop is going. He asks about Nate, whom he calls “Nate the Great.” He’s never said so, but you can tell he looks forward to our arrival. Our mysterious club in the back corner, gushing stories like it’s our job.
A few months ago, I ran into Jessica Simms. We were in the Chatham MFA program together, although we never shared classes. She is good-humored and sweet and packs a lot of chutzpah. I invited her into the group, and she came the next week. She’s writing a novel about a clandestine league of immortals.
“Perfect,” we exclaimed, when Jess explained the plot. “You’re in.”
In December, we hosted our first “writer’s retreat.” We booked two motel rooms in Crafton, just outside of Pittsburgh, near the airport. The environs are bleak and empty. Our windows overlooked a parking lot, then a fence, then more parking lots. But the rooms were adjoining, so we opened the doorway between them and moved freely between the two spaces. For 50 hours, this became our clubhouse. We needed to escape daily distractions. We typed for two full days and much of the nights. We went to a roadhouse down the highway and played pool and talked about favorite books and movies. We stayed up late and played dice games. Laptops snapped open and snapped closed. The air was frenetic with clicking keyboards.
Every now and again, one of us would turn serious and say, “Do you think I should introduce a new character?”
Or: “What’s another word for ‘melancholy’?”
Or: “Should the bomb go off in the car, or in the building?”
When we parted, I felt as if weeks had passed. Our two adjoining rooms had had the effect of a submarine; without sunlight or hourly rituals, time had been meaningless. In only a couple of days, I had written 17,000 words.
My favorite artists are the social ones: Kerouac and his buddies weren’t just contemporaries, but friends who hung out. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were lovers and drinking buddies. Michelangelo and da Vinci were deeply personal rivals in a literally walled city. T.S. Eliot was friends with J.R.R. Tolkien; Van Gogh had a madness-inducing friendship with Gauguin; Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino were friends, fellow philosophers, and political activists; Truman Capote paled around with Harper Lee; Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school each morning; Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace were close friends and bitter rivals; Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp became friends during the filming of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it was Thompson himself who shaved Depp’s head—and so on.
Writers can work alone. Whatever puts out great words, let them do it. But off the page, the gregarious ones captivate me most.
We have no idea what will happen to our little group. We have thought about “going public,” inviting new members (our latest is Joe Castellano, a former student of mine). But how much can we read in a single week? What is the tipping point? Even the Algonquin Round Table got crowded after awhile. Could we sacrifice ease and comfort in order to make ourselves official—to plant seeds for Rahnd Tables all over the city? Isn’t that what McSweeney’s did? Didn’t the Beatniks have offshoots and imitators? Couldn’t we start a movement?
For now, we’re just a bunch of friends with a common interest, a talent for writing, and a genuinely crass sense of humor. For some of us, the daily grind has nothing to do with our principal passions, and the Rahnd Table is a kind of group therapy—Scribes Anonymous, if you will. We may not make headlines with our latest witticisms; we may not contribute weekly postings to The New Yorker. Our novels may take months more to complete, after a minefield of crises and panic attacks. But the group persists, against all expectations. And whatever is said or done, the Rahnd Table has become writing at its most pleasurable. In daily life, we are obscure. But we’re famous in Bloomfield.