A Relevatory Night at PEN/Faulkner

On stage, from left to right, Alice McDermott, Debra Magpie Earling, W. Ralph Eubanks and Francine Prose. (James R. Brantley )

About halfway through the pyrotechnic vision of Revelation, St. John hears a voice that tells him to take a little book and "eat it up."

The scene Monday night at the Folger Shakespeare Library was less apocalyptic, but revelations, little books and good food all came down from above. The 21st annual PEN/Faulkner Fiction Gala featured 12 great writers for a captivating night of mini-readings on the subject of "revelation."

One by one they walked onto the faux Renaissance stage in the Folger and spoke for just three-to-five minutes. The black-tie crowd had paid $400 a plate, but so captivating were these intense little essays and short stories that nobody seemed eager to leave the theatre for the meal next door.

Calvin Trillin had obviously received a revelation that audiences want their emcees to keep things moving briskly. The long-time New Yorker writer, speaking in his customary deadpan, noted that he felt out of place in this age of shocking public confessions: "When I went to write memoir, I was at a great disadvantage, because - please don't let this get back to New York -- I had a happy childhood."

The star of the evening was local novelist Alice McDermott, who read a witty, emotionally complex essay about the time her mother became obsessed with a line about the Virgin Mary in the Book of Revelations -- what McDermott and her sarcastic teenage friends used to call "the Peyote Gospel." "Between us, my mother and I have 24 years of Catholic education, enough to form two Jesuits."

Geraldine Brooks reminded the audience that the Angel had given St. John advice that every writer must follow: "Write what you see." (As an aside, she also blamed that angel for Dan Brown....)

Other writers approached the subject of revelation in more personal ways. David Anthony Durham moved through a lovely series of small moments when he realized how much his hands resemble his mother's.

"Revelation or Road Kill," by Francine Prose, showed just how much a master stylist can get out of only a few hundred words. She told about the time when her young son became convinced that dead animals on the street should be scooped up, brought home and brought back to life. "It became a problem," she said.

Cancer was a prominent subject in three of the evening's readings -- from Beth Henley, Nam Le and Amy Tan -- a sad reminder that the long war on that disease is still providing us with sobering revelations about the fragility of life.

Luis Alberto Urrea strode up to the podium, looked at his notes and then tossed them onto the floor. His impassioned remembrance described his beginnings as a writer in a Tijuana garbage dump. "I'm just singing this song," he said. "There is no them, there's only us."

-- Ron Charles

You can follow Ron on Twitter @roncharles

By Ron Charles |  September 23, 2009; 5:00 AM ET Ron Charles
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Fun report! I especially enjoyed Alice McDermott's comments. I've always loved her elegiac novels. I remember once back in the Golden Age of the Washington Post Book Club getting into a little dispute with Marie Arana. I felt "Charming Betsy" was better ("only slightly," I'd said) than "At Weddings and Wakes." Marie felt differently and likely got the better of me in our fun exchanges. Actually, both novels are terrific.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | September 23, 2009 2:05 PM

Thanks for this, Ron. Did they notice you weren't tuxed up? I wonder if they'll post or publish the Revelations, as I'd love to see them fully.

Posted by: EugeniaKim | September 23, 2009 2:17 PM

I'm happy to report that my lack of a tuxedo caused no ruffle at all. In fact, I'd say about a quarter of the men there weren't wearing tuxes. Reflection of dark economic times? Not sure.

Posted by: ronchar | September 23, 2009 8:31 PM

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