It's Friday night and we're watching a couple of writers in a spelling contest, mulling over the phonetics of famous authors' last names - Jeffrey "Eugenides," for example.
How'd we get duped into this? Well, clever Literary Death Match creator Todd Zuniga went and put the brainy Miami Book Fair event inside Bardot, the hip, chill little midtown lounge, making it appealing both to those who live for the written word and those who live for the expertly shaken martini.
Two pairs of writers "faced off" in readings of their published work, and then were evaluated in a rather unscientific manner by a panel of expert judges: Justin Torres (author of We the Animals), and Dean Haspiel (an award-winning artist). Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk was scheduled as the third judge, but didn't make it. Publicist Jeff Newelt filled in.
The first writers to read their 7-minute submissions "against" one another were T.M. Shine, author of Nothing Happens Until It Happens To You, and Mat Johnson, author of the novel Pym. An incoherent game of "Kill, Fuck, Marry" and a batch of Nerf darts shot into the audience by Zuniga somehow determined that Shine would perform his reading first.
Shine's Nothing Happens is a book that expanded from a short and gently humorous non-fiction story called Terminated, in which the author along with nearly all his colleagues are invited into a a little room at work where they lose their jobs. For Shine, the news came after 18 years of service.
His reading, however, was different. It was told from the perspective of a man in a dark spiritual place, who wasn't sure how he got there. His character wished he'd suffered from a debilitating addiction to crystal meth or some other awful drug so that he'd always have an excuse for his lack of ambition. He spoke of a strained relationship with a wife he loved deeply, and an inability to make her happy despite the fact that everything should be all right. We found it to be a layered but still accessible reading, although the impromptu choir Shine enlisted to accompany his reading may have been more distracting from than complementary to his work.
Next, Mat Johnson, whose Pym is about a recently-canned American literature professor obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe's only novel (The Articles of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket), read a short about a 16-year-old boy and his "poison-filled" dick. The character expressed the need to "drain" the organ daily until he found a 14-year-old girl willing to absorb the "poison" for him - but not without consequences. Vulgar and frustrated, the story was to us kind of predictable and a bit cheap in its inherently racy subject matter.
The judges disagreed, using some cryptic algorithm to crown Johnson the winner of the first face-off.
Next, poet Sandra Beasley and women's web comic author Jennifer Hayden had an on-stage showdown. After winning a coin-toss, Beasley elected to perform second.
Hayden, whose comics are kind of like American Splendor but aimed at a female audience, took the mic and began reading work from her comic book Underwire from a projector on the back wall. Her stories included a lot of "fucks" in explaining a mother's struggle against head lice and her fantasies of murder, among other subjects.
Then Beasley took over the microphone. The author of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, a unique book about a life plagued with food allergies, read impassioned poems. The first and most memorable was a longing love poem told from the perspective of a jukebox. The last was about the artist's need to take odd jobs to win the privilege of doing what she's really called to do.
Afterward, one of the judges poked fun at Beasley for reading in the cliche beatnik style, with lots of drawn out words and prolonged pauses. Still, we found her reading more engaging than Hayden's, whose edgy tales of middle age and motherhood were just not very relatable.
Again, the judges disagreed. They crowned Hayden the winner of the match.
The winners of the two preliminary matches faced off in the above-mentioned spelling bee, and Hayden beat Johnson by a single point.
Jennifer Hayden, winner of the Literary Death Match at Bardot
"I'm elated. No, I'm bloated!" Hayden joked after the show. "I'm gonna really shoot to the top now."
We asked her what she planned to do now after being bestowed with such an honor.
"I'm gonna get shit-faced. What are you gonna do?" came her candid response.
We asked Zuniga whether he agreed with the outcome of the match. He expertly evaded the question.
"People ask me, how can you compare a graphic novelist to a poet?" Zuniga said. "How can you compare a fiction writer and a non-fiction writer? I always answer, 'Exactly.' It's never about picking a winner. It's about tricking a bunch of attractive people into listening to literary readings."