Outside the Javits Center, it was drizzling. Inside, a bagpiper was doing his theater-of-cruelty thing while we waited on the registration line. There were ads for Poland Spring water on the giant monitor, and images of the late Mister Rogers, and I was at Book Expo America once again. My press tag identified me as a creature of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and more than one conventioneer innocently asked me if I was the new editor. I was tempted to, you know, neither confirm nor deny--but it would have been wrong.
James Fenton once described a visit to Prek Chak, a tiny Cambodian village notorious for its gambling mania. "Absolutely everybody was gambling," he wrote. "It was like, I suddenly thought, coming into some allegorical town, say in the Pilgrim's Progress
." For some reason this year's Book Expo gave me a similar impression. Small Press Distributors was raffling off a Dean & Deluca gift basket. Stonebridge was raffling off a sex machine (sorry, I didn't get the details). Random House was raffling off two tickets to a lecture by the Dalai Lama. And the Running Press, in a serious upmarket move, was raffling off a Mini Cooper convertible. Perhaps there's some subliminal message here: after all, any book without the words Harry
on the spine is something of a gamble itself. In any case, I succumbed to gaming fever by Saturday afternoon and did sit down for a hand of poker with Cat Hulbert, anointed "the world's greatest female gambler" by the Game Show Network. She's got quite a set of hands. "Position, position, position," she kept saying. "Here comes the flop." I quickly folded and slunk away from the table. "At least you're leaving with your pants on," she called out by way of goodbye.
The first author I encountered on the floor was Robert Pinsky, who was on hand to promote his boffo Life of King David
. Clearly we're not in Sunday school anymore (the third chapter begins with the promising line: "They were polygamists, these monotheists.") Pinsky has drawn on both biblical literature and the Psalms to reinvent this heroic figure, and in a few brief, scarily articulate comments, his explained his attraction to the subject. "David was a great man, a great killer, and a great poet," he told me. "When he got to Heaven, God called up the legal angels and basically got David a seventy-year extension. It's the story
, not the biblical element, that drew me to him."
Celebrities are, of course, a dime a dozen on the BEA floor. In short order I spied John Waters--the pencil mustache and S-shaped posture are a dead giveaway--and R.L. Stine and a peevish Nikki Giovanni, bursting out the scrum near the Norton booth and asking her companion, "Where's Penguin? Do you know where Penguin
is?" I saw Peter Lawford's son. I saw Tab Hunter, barricaded behind a display of posters and galleys and Tab Hunter refrigerator magnets, signing memorabilia. (The former teen star looked remarkably well preserved, with big hands and a bulletproof tan. When I asked him how it felt to be promoting his autobiography, he said: "Better to hear the story from the horse's mouth than some horse's ass." Touché.) Still, the celeb with the most gravitas was probably Carl, the peace-loving Rottweiler who's made numerous appearances in Alexandra Day's classic series. I joined the long line at the FSG booth, and was treated to various bits of cynical speculation while I waited. "That's actually the fourth Carl," one killjoy said. "I think he's actually a she
," piped up another. I ignored them all, wanting to maintain my childish innocence just a little bit longer. While Alexandra Day signed my copy of Carl's Sleepy Afternoon
, I asked whether this would be the last Carl book. "It's the last one in the contract," she replied, adding some loop-the-loops to her signature. Then it was time for my audience with the great hound himself, or herself, who smelled my hand for an instant but otherwise peered off into the distance, trying to stay in character.