Chad Harbach, Dopplegangers & the Near Demise of Insult-Seeking

Chad Harbach Reading @ McNally Jackson Books

Chad Harbach first novel

According to Harbach, my soul, composed of douchiness and tardiness, is both clean as a summer's eve and very often late

The night of Chad Harbach’s reading was to become for me a bizarre, painful evening, an evening whose anthropomorphic traits I, post-disaster, characterized with mildly self-flagellating images, such as nervous nose picking, mumbling, and shame. Oh, reliable old Shame! How the echoes of your approaching footfalls quicken my heart, send rivulets of battery acid to the welcoming lengths of my armpit hair, and call to standing attention on the base of my tongue the ghost of coffees past. It was an evening to remember for its inability to be forgotten.

Though anxiety and second thoughts were familiar feelings prior to asking strangers for insults, dark premonitions were not. For no particular reason I could see, I was suffering from the acute desire to skip the Q train to McNally Jackson and instead ride the L to domestic safety. But I’d humped the bricklike Art of Fielding up and down subway pee-ways and through the grimace of what was then my full-time job, so: dark thoughts circling my head or not, I set out to ask Mr. Harbach to look into my soul and laugh.

Harbach’s work on n+1 suggested he’d be happy to oblige. Happy insulters make for easy, rewarding nights. Add to that the apparent evidence that he was a fellow lover of America’s slowest, most unabashedly boringest game, and I just had to go. The Art of Fielding was a BASEBALL book, and how often can we self-identifying literati hold our heads up proudly in our favorite Brooklyn coffee shops with sports genre type books in our laps? It seemed that Harbach pulled a Chabon – genre subject, literary pedigree.

Besides all that, TAoF is a pretty damn good literary fiction novel that happens to also be about baseball. During the discussion, Harbach admitted to limiting the baseball-centric sections to keep the population pie-slice of baseball haters from throwing the novel towards the nearest trash heap. Notwithstanding the segments of Fielding that follow the female love interest in her quest to further embody a stale idealization of what a “perfect” woman might be for a pair of intelligent male protagonists, it was every bit the enjoyable, well-written first novel that probably confirmed Harbach’s rightful place in your local bookstore.

Downstairs at McNally Jackson was stuffed with my fellow baseball lovers. Despite the turnout, Chad appeared mellow and sustainably happy, thumbs hooked over trouser pockets, riding what looked to be a mellow high of reading his novel in front of friends and well wishers. His former university buddy, Keith Gessen, author of “The Sad Young Literary Men” (which we should all read again because it’s damn good), was there to push the reading in front of the discussion bus.

Both authors performed well, shared the stage, and made fine, inspiring shoptalk. To any prospective authors, Gessen jokingly recommended, “really, if you’re going to write a first novel, make it a short one.” At that, I handled Harbach’s novel and praised myself for getting the joke. The discussion wrapped up with a handful of the usual varying quality of questions from the audience.

The turnout being what it was, I’d been forced to watch from across the room, behind the signing desk – a position that, while less than ideal for the reading, was perfect for ensuring a great spot in the book signing line. In fact, after the wrap-up speech from the McNally Jackson employee, I found myself first in line. I regretted this instantly.

First in line at an average reading is a precarious spot for the insult prospector. First in line with the masses pressing at my back, attempting to either push through to escape the McNally Jackson scrum or find the beginnings of the chaotic line forming in the chaos behind me, seemed less than ideal. With the energy in the room swinging towards the baseline frustration found on most rush-hour subway platforms and morningtime bagel joints, I considered bailing.

But why? I asked. First in line! I’ll be done in a few minutes. What’s the worst that could happen?

Meanwhile, the show ground on, Chad saying hello to friends and colleagues, receiving congratulations, slowly parting the crowd. A path opened up to the table, minimal important-looking suits to slow his progress – I had one last moment to escape what was coming, but balked. Chad scootched behind the table, nodded at the forming line, probably took an inward sigh, and we began.

Or rather, so I tried to begin. My usual introduction: hello, thanks so much, enjoyed the talk, I’m me, insults, websites, etc.

It was at this point that the co-star of my private snuff flick, my pint-sized Judas, a plumpish, curly-locked 20-something whose reek of desperation dwarfed and overpowered my own, shouted from my left shoulder:

“Oh my God! I was just going to ask him the same thing! OH MY GOD! That’s what I was going to do, ask him to insult me!”

The room went dark. Every horrible thing I’d ever seen and somehow also everything awful I’d never seen rushed in, car wrecks and body parts, mothers smothering their babies, wild stallions set aflame rushing towards what relief might be found in a river of blood, unemployment and unknown 800-numbers calling my cell phone and a lockstep procession of filial failure as far as the eye could see. I froze.

What was this? Some copycat insult-seeker? A Harbach fan looking for a way to spark a conversation? Had Harbach or his publisher hired someone to run interference on the presumptuous asking for stupid or elaborate inscriptions?

By the time I snapped back, Chad was pushing towards me a signed book. More panic. I’d only begun my spiel before the interruption; he had no idea what I was on about. Quickly, then: authors. Insults. Collections.

“I’m game for insulting people,” said Chad. Did he look confused? Impatient? It was running too long. He’d already signed the damn book, what more did I want?

I meant in the inscription.

Blank look.

I’m sorry, I meant: would you insult me in the inscription?

Meanwhile, my hateful little replicant was proclaiming his prior intent to ask Chad for the EXACT SAME THING. “Isn’t that such a coincidence?”

Chad jotted an insult, maybe I thanked him. In a daze, in the clutches of the lattermost option of a fight or flight reaction, I flinched from the touch of an older gentleman. Apparently I backed away from the table. What was it I’d wanted from the author? the gentleman wanted to know. Something about insults?

I pointed to my doppleganger. That’s what I wanted, the temerity behind whatever machinations were powering that bastard and the mindset not to care about what the crowd thought. Whatever game the facsimile insult-grabber was playing at, he was playing it balls out, loud, full-throttle. He was all-in.

Whatever his reason really was for asking Chad Harbach for an insult, this transaction was enough to demand an immediate audit of my own intentions and behavior. Whoever my double was, curly, fleshy, short but loud — I hated him for being so… close to me. Was this how I looked to people? To the authors? The question chased me away from bookstores for a few months, drove me to a hide.

In the blog’s infancy, it was enough that I got to meet, however briefly, men and women who represented my own best-case, life-affirming scenario: writing words that a sizable audience would pony up $26.95 to read. In the beginning, it was enough that I was first to publish my idea for others to see. But being the first hombre to stick my flag in the dirt doesn’t mean I’m the only conquistador to land on this brave, new idea, or that there isn’t a nearby wigwam full of inscription-seekers living with little concern for intellectual property. So, then: stripping all that away, why?

Best answer I’ve come up with? I enjoy the suspense and mystery behind the decision whether or not to insult, love meeting talented and intelligent and maybe famous folk. If I’m not the first or best to play with this idea, I still get to imagine for a moment that these guys are my friends and colleagues, and these insults are written out of love and respect. So, to my double, whoever was behind me in line, all the luck. I think we’re playing whatever game this is for the right reasons.

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