"This is not a band," says the guy standing behind me, as the Lit 6 Project takes the stage at the 400 Bar on a Wednesday night in late June. The patron's tone is slightly puzzled but not hostile. Sam Osterhout, the group's founder and spokesman, is telling the crowd of 150 or so that they're about to hear some stories. Not sung stories, like "Convoy" or "Papa Don't Preach," or folktales or memoirish one-person-show stories, but genuine, book-type stories, more or less. Osterhout, who looks like a post-Atkins-diet Oliver Platt, doesn't actually say all that, but no one in Lit 6 is carrying an instrument and they are after all called Lit 6 and not the Folktale 5 or the Popular Music 4. Besides, it's rarely a good idea to reveal one's intention at the outset, as the obscure Samoan boxer Lionel "First I'm Gonna Punch You in the Noggin, Then I'm Gonna Punch You in the Tummy" McGillicuddy learned all too painfully.
Some of the people in the house are clearly fans; others are on hand for local roots-rock combo Beau Kinstler or for Portland, Oregon's Richmond Fontaine, who will headline. Lit 6 occupy the middle slot, which might be a bit scary for a band that's not, in fact, a band. What if a rumble breaks out between the readers and the rockers? What if the rockers yell out mean stuff like Book learnin' is for précieux! or You are not to my liking!? What if things get all higgledy-piggledy, and later on, as Richmond Fontaine are taking a break to tune up, someone makes an inappropriate request ("Play Joyce's 'The Dead'!" or "Put down that six-string and spin me a yarn, kind sir!")
But Lit 6 wants people to have a good time, including--especially--the folks who wouldn't normally be caught sleeping at a typical reading. In this respect, they're part of a growing national trend of writers who read/perform new, generally short material in bars and clubs and other nonstuffy settings. Dave Eggers's McSweeney's reading series is the most famous example of the rockish reading movement, and such events regularly happen in New York. The New York Times did a good-sized story about the phenomenon last May.
"Most readings are about the author, about selling books and supporting writers," says Osterhout backstage after the show, "We're populists. We want to create an event, a performance that's more about the audience than anything." To this end, the group isn't above a bit of palm greasing. As if to reward the crowd's indulgence, the group raffles off or gives away a good amount of beer and meat throughout the show. From what I know about the tavern business, beer is a big seller, and so I wonder what the bar thinks about gratis brewskis flowing liberally from the stage. Later I learn that Lit 6 bought the beer directly from the bar, at a slight discount.
Geoff Herbach reads the first story, a funny tale about an adrift cube-worker who winds up in a series of barroom competitions (arm wrestling, standing broad jump, sprint) with a wiry, blustering cowboy. For their work with Lit 6, these writers truck in "flash fiction," generally one-scene tales rarely longer than 10 minutes. Though there's not a clearly defined Lit 6 aesthetic, the emphasis is on humor, and a Midwestern and Rabelaisian sensibility dominates, as when Stephanie Ash describes a dilapidated Country Kitchen sign, the remaining letters of which read C unt itchen. Tonight's unstated theme is "hitting the bottle," and most of the five stories involve drinking. Later, while chatting with the group, I remark that most of the characters from the night's reading were small-town losers or slightly cracked or defeated urban nobodies. Kafkaesque, Walter Mitty, Willy Loman types. "That makes sense," says Ash, whose offering was about a lonely, small-town eBay regular, "We're all basically small-town losers."
As a general rule, the Lit 6 members debut a new story each time they perform. "At the Zoo," a frequently scatological little tale about a bickering couple's visit to what sounded like Como Zoo, was written the day of the show. That's one of the things that makes the show cool. There's something ephemeral about the stories, a hot-off-the-presses feel that's somewhere between fresh (as in new and as in insolent) and unfinished. All of the readers, to some degree, perform their stories, which tonight are all first-person narratives. The readers aren't acting, really--they stumble on a line here and there, and mostly keep their eyes fixed on the page--but they do embody their narrators, and they take on voices that are obviously not quite their own. Herbach delivers his story in a kind of mock-earnest shout. Jeff Smieding, especially at first, reads very much like Walter Cronkite. Ash uses a dry, stiff delivery that suits her tale's droll wit.
At the 400 tonight, there's a fair amount of chatter from the back and side of the bar, but the front section is highly attentive, and the laughter is as steady as at a good standup gig. An hour or so passes without a hint of a rumble, and as luck would have it, a vegetarian raffle winner just happens to be the one who scores a small Styrofoam cooler full of frozen broccoli. The group, of course, has no trouble unloading the beer. "There are three things I want people to get from a Lit 6 show," says Osterhout later. "I want them to laugh, I want them go home and discover something a bit more meaningful in the story, and I want them to wake up with a hangover."