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Burt Reynolds, Car Crashes, and Suicidal Depression: A Literary Event

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Photo courtesy Diana Arterian
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By Katherine Manderfield/Special to LAistSenior citizens, hipsters, and high-schoolers rustled among the crowded conference room of UCLA's Hammer Museum, waiting for the Jennifer Knox and Sarah Manguso reading to commence. The event was part of the Hammer’s New American Writing Series, which showcases notable contemporary writers. David Foster Wallace, John D’Agata, and Mary Gaitskill are among past participants. Curated by Benjamin Weissman, the series is hailed as one of the best in Los Angeles.

The Hammer is a class-act lit venue that conjures images of award receptions and esteemed academic lectures—a stark contrast to the ironic tattoos and beer-gummed floors that dominate LA’s east side readings. It was Westwood, after all. But while whispers trumped catcalls, Tuesday night’s reading was hardly meek.

Poet Jennifer Knox was undeniably hilarious. The animated blonde read from her newest collection, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway. The great “Burt Reynolds FAQ,” was an ode to her Reynolds-fanatic brother. (“He’s the kind of fan that e-mails the president of the Burt Reynolds fan-club to correct fact errors,” she confided.) The poem boasted Reynolds ‘facts’ like, “By the time he could walk, alligators would gather to watch him wrestle other babies.” The poem, “Cars,” was the pinnacle of Knox’s reading. The piece chronicled an outrageous number of car crashes she’d had—one of which was a collision with a van full of Girl Scouts (“Oh how I mourned those pants the EMT cut off me”). The droll epic runs the gamut: feigning foreign exchange students, getting stoned, smoking crack (“for the first time”), and remembering her very first neck-brace. While driving recklessly with a high-school friend in her father’s car, the poet quips, “I thought fuck boys! and hey, we could really die.” Finally: an unpretentious reason to read the New Yorker.

Headliner Sarah Manguso followed. Her work was a great juxtaposition to Knox’s, as it was poignantly somber and disquieting. With eloquent, even-heeled speech, Manguso read from her New York Times best-selling memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay. The book documents her battle with CIDP, a rare systemic autoimmune neurological disorder she developed at the age of 21. A valiant Manguso delivered touching and often philosophical excerpts from her book with lines like, “Isn’t frailty often a choice?” and “What came first? The suicidal depression, or the suicidal immune deficiency?” Her moving accounts provoked an urgent desire to reread her work.

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When, during the Q&A, an older woman asked them if they considered how lucky they had been despite crashes and sickness, the two writers looked at one another. Knox said, “It’s hard to write about being lucky. It’s easy to write about being unlucky.”

When I asked Sarah Manguso, newly local from NYC, what she thought of the city’s literary climate compared to New York’s, she pointed out several established writers in the room—a form of peer support rare in the Big Apple. “It isn’t blasé,” she said. “Quote me on that.”

The Hammer’s New American Reading Series provides a rare (and free) opportunity to hear new, compelling literature and interact with burgeoning writers. The next event is on Tuesday, February 1 and features Aminatta Forna and Janice Shapiro.