Silence enfolds wide-eyed beholders when he enters the room. The room is expansive, brightly lit from high above and dense with pockets of people crowded around what are known in the nomenclature of conventions as booths but are really just tables, sometimes here covered with that muscular, nice restaurant table-clothy cloth one associates with convention booths, or tables. There are way more people here than you would expect. In sheer turnout the numbers are impressive, tantamount to sci-fi or comic book events. The tone is also similar, the enthusiasm pure and infectious. But here’s the difference: you won’t find George Takei signing autographs and posing for photos. There are no Spocks or Chewbaccas or Incredible Hulks or actors promoting the latest comic book film adaptation. There isn’t a single famous person in this room. These are the truly marginal, the spotlessly obscure. These are the members, and their fans, of The Writer Impersonators Association of America. And its God has just made his entrance.
Stillness swiftly erupts into applause. He is here after all, embodied, standing before his disciples. The adoration is breathtaking. At first the crowd recoils in the presence of the sublime and then like a deep breath exhaled surges back toward him. A cadre of zaftig, middle-aged men, poorly dressed though intimidating in their utter devotion, shove away the zealous and bewildered with that particular style of guarding you see bodyguards employ around paparazzi: the wide stances and extended arms, deft elbows, severe scrutiny and almost contempt for those that want to be close, if only in the proximity of the One whose love and wrath are boundless.
Penitence and finally supplication quickly follow. He begins to move slowly through the crowd. He is in his sixties, not unattractive, with gray, receding hair and a subtle grace bestowed upon some of the more fortunate approaching old age. He appears hale and robust. His clothing is business-casual. His face is an eerie offering of humility that shelters jealousy and presages vengeance against the unbeliever. He is silent, serene. The guards speak into his ear, counseling, ushering, and he simply nods. Comparisons become obvious. He is papal. He doesn’t so much shake the hands of his admirers as cup them between his own. Curiously, he does not bare his teeth. His name is Kevin Richmond-Beach. He is also, from what I am told, an absolute dead ringer for Thomas Pynchon.
“There’s probably twice as many people as last year,” says Eric Smalls, a 34 year-old assistant manager at an apartment complex in Vancouver, B.C. He drove the few hours south to the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle because he heard Richmond-Beach might show. Without exception all attendees of the WIAA convention refer to the impersonators by the names of the writers they impersonate rather than the impersonators’ actual names.
When I ask Smalls why he made the trip he replies, “Are you kidding? It’s Pynchon, man. I mean come on.” His expression is one of disbelief, both in my apparent paucity of enthusiasm and his own good fortune. He holds up the screen of a digital camera between us and shows me a picture he snapped of Richmond-Beach. “I’ll get one of the two of us. I’m not leaving here without one of me and Pynchon.”
Smalls is typical. The average fan here is a white male in the 30-50 age range, with a slightly nerdy tic in his temperament, a kind of cagey energy coupled with vast esoteric knowledge that twitches about the eyes and mouth. Like most other niche conventions, there is palpable camaraderie but also a certain intellectual elitism amongst the hardcore lit fans that doesn’t exist in the other genres. E.g., the small group huddled around the William Gaddis booth would not be caught dead loitering alongside, say, the Nicholas Sparks fans who by the way are exceptionally and overwhelmingly female.
Scott Taffy, the Nick Sparks wannabe, is one of the few impersonators you would never confuse with the real person. Yes, he sort of looks like Sparks, but he is no Richmond-Beach. There’s something sleazy about him; he sports a look that says I’m getting laid tonight. And he will. The tone is not unlike a bachelorette party. There is giddy laughter and even a few cheers that seem to be non-sequiturs. Eventually, after lingering at the borders of the group, I try to move closer to the booth but quickly realize I am unwelcome.
When I excuse myself and scooch in for better vantage a woman with frizzled hair and leathery skin scowls and calls me what I hear to be fucktard but later in my hotel room, when I check my tape recorder, I’ll discover the cacophony of erotically pitched adulation has overwhelmed the woman’s voice, the muffled tenor of which resembles one of the subordinate demons Father Karras discovers to be inhabiting Regan in The Exorcist. When I glance down I notice a huge and menacing diamond ring jouncing atop the woman’s wrinkled, clapping hand that conveys not only her true age but something subtler, more tenebrous and sad. I am not safe here.
To my delight, I learn that there are friendly rivalries. One of the most notable is the rift between Pynchon and J.D. Salinger (real name Bob Lowenstein) fans. I spoke about this with some men over at the raucous Clive Cussler (Charles Grimes) booth. The Cussler fan is what Hemingway would have looked like if he were in real estate.
They are aging, big-bellied men wearing polo shirts, khaki shorts and loafers, sans socks. Sunglasses dangle around necks. They are marlin fisherman. They are golfers and vanity plates and myocardial infarctions.
I speak to Rory Steele, a husky, balding fifty-three year old computer software-type person (I don’t recall the actual title. Though I do recall that I had never heard of such a position and that frankly it sounded fake) from Philadelphia.
“Pynchon is like the lost minutes on the Nixon tapes,” Steele says. “The not being there just adds to the mystery. The fact he even came today ruins it. Like if the Red Sox won the World Series. The myth is dead. The real Pynchon would’ve never showed. I think it was a dumb move, actually.”
Salinger on the other hand was a convention regular and from what I gather from the Pynchon devotees completely defeated the mystique precisely because he was ubiquitous. “Everyone was sad when Salinger (Lowenstein) died,” Andrew Ball, a thirty-one year old bartender from Edmonds, Washington, tells me. “But at the same time it was like come on bro, you’re Salinger. Don’t you think you should like, you know, not show up once in a while? But Catcher in the Rye changed a lot of peoples’ lives.”
And Ball’s insight strikes me as crucial, maybe even the sine qua non of the whole phenomenon: these guys love the writing. They are all essentially just big readers and this makes them endearing, despite their sometimes misguided fascination not just with the actual authors of their favorite works but with the men who simply resemble them. The impersonators are accessible. Many fans here have met the real people as well, bestselling authors who do large chain bookstore signings. But I consistently hear the same complaints, that lines are too long or fans can’t afford or schedule the trip. These WIAA events go on at convention centers and Holiday Inns all over the country all year long.
And forget about the real Pynchons and Salingers of the literary world. Those guys remain elusive deliberately and why not? They choose to lead private lives. So the impersonators are the closest thing a lot of these fans have, however ersatz, to the creators of the fiction they adore. And you can see just how much they appreciate their mimetic champions (it’s worth noting that none of the impersonators I’ve met make any attempt whatsoever to speak or behave like their genuine counterparts. There are no acts here – nary a Liza Minnelli or Elvis – these folks are not impressionists, they don’t perform. They are looky-likeys and there seems to be no pretense that they are anything but) when they get face-to-face with them.
Greg Shakespeare (actual name, no shit), who I’ll admit looks exactly like James Patterson, may just as well be the real thing. He sits at his booth in his sweatshirt and ball cap and it’s as if he just got back from a photo shoot for his latest book jacket. He shakes hands and smiles and this is the truly remarkable thing: he signs books. Actually autographs James Patterson books with a fake James Patterson signature. I ask Shakespeare if he thinks this was permissible.
“Shit, I don’t know,” he laughs. “I don’t even know what his [Patterson’s] signature looks like. But these guys don’t care. They’re great. They love Patterson’s books. It’s all for fun so I say what the hell.”
Shakespeare is a fun guy. He’s charming and has the same handsome, almost epicanthic eyes as the bona fide Patterson. In real life Shakespeare is a contractor in New Mexico. He’s been married to the same woman for thirty-three years and they have two sons. He reaches into his wallet and pulls out a family photo. His wife is pretty but not a knockout and his sons are studs, exceeding phenotypically what you’d expect from the genetic limitations of their parents’ union.
A comparatively young man walks behind the booth and puts his arm around Shakespeare while a friend snaps a picture. Shakespeare looks genuinely happy to do it. He flashes a thumbs-up and gives the guy sort of an awkward bro-hug. Then I realize that Shakespeare is probably here for the same reason as the rest of the impersonators. He likes being famous, if only in this fictional setting. This is confirmed when I ask him if he does it for the money. He chuckles and says, “The money? This is not a lucrative a, you know. We’re all here because we want to be.” He’s a modestly successful guy whose sons have long since moved out and he tells me he just golfs a lot. “And my wife and I go to the movies” he adds. “We’re big movie buffs.” He is totally and unabashedly average and this place, these conventions, allow him the chance to experience what the real Patterson gets all the time, a bunch of people who want to say hello and tell him how much they appreciate what he does.
I’m deeply sympathetic. On the rare occasion a handful of people approach me at a signing in some small bookshop and smile while clutching one of my books, the experience is immensely rewarding. Who doesn’t want fans? I think it boils down to simply wanting to be liked, an impulse that’s haunted me all my life. When I first knew I wanted to write, I would lay awake at night and fantasize about doing signings and imagine beautiful girls queuing up with flushed cheeks and prefab compliments. Then years later the signings started happening, if on a very small scale, and the turnout was never big enough, the queues never long enough, the girls never pretty enough. My disappointment showcased in stark and unflattering relief what I think I always knew deep down to be true, despite the fact that people might actually be glad I’m alive and find that my existence enriches their own lives in some ineffable way: I was an asshole.
The origins of the WIAA are as mysterious as its appeal. Here is an abridged version of its genesis, compiled from interviews of several hardcore fans as well as impersonators (after months of tenuous leads that turned out to be dead ends, I failed to uncover evidence for anything resembling an official governing body or members thereof; the trail simply stops), minus the obviously bullshitty “but so here’s the weird thing” digressions many offered which are so irrefragably untrue that I want to include them if only for their entertaining bullshitness but am constrained by length.
Mark Bernard (pronounced [awesomely] Ber-nerd) was, in the fall of 1985, the janitor at the infamous Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco. A forty-five year old drunk who was by all accounts “touched,” he enjoyed anonymity in the fast-paced nightclub, keeping to himself, head buried in his work which, unfortunately, involved cleaning up semen.
One night he arrived at the theatre and was told that someone in the backroom wanted to speak to him. Bernard was greeted by the man and as the story goes started flipping out. The man zapped Bernard with a stun gun and restrained him until Bernard, exhausted, finally calmed down. The zapper in the story (I’m not making this up) was Hunter S. Thompson. Supposedly, earlier that night a stripper had told Hunter Thompson – who had known the Mitchell Brothers and had just assumed the post of night manager at the club – that he needed to go clean some cum off a booth.
This sent Thompson into a rage and the girl, now terrified and crying, started complaining that the janitor was freaking out and that she thought he was going to hurt someone. The girl was new and unfamiliar with both Thompson and Bernard and because they looked so much alike, she couldn’t tell them apart. When Thompson learned of the misunderstanding he made sure the mistake would never happen again. After Bernard had settled down, Thompson explained that he was sorry but there was just no way in hell Bernard would be able to continue working at the club as long as Thompson was manager. Thompson then gave the man what is rumored to be a considerable amount of money and even secured him a custodial position at another strip club. Bernard, who had a history of mental and financial problems, accepted the money and the job.
When Jim Mitchell learned of the incident, he quickly saw an opportunity to exploit Bernard’s resemblance to Thompson. Mitchell worked out a deal with Bernard and began acting as his manager, scheduling appearances at universities and bookstores claiming that Bernard was in fact Thompson. When Thompson caught wind of the fraud he threatened to sue Mitchell whereupon Mitchell quickly dropped the hoax. Distraught, Bernard attempted to manage himself, but because of publicity surrounding the hoax was unsuccessful and would eventually commit suicide.
Not long after the scandal with Bernard and Mitchell, a sixty-eight year old Armenian immigrant and pawnshop owner named Abirad Gorgodian, after reading about the incident, placed a classified ad in the San Francisco Chronicle seeking people who looked like famous writers to showcase an event that highlighted the pretense thinking, I suppose presciently, that there was an untapped market for look-alike writers and that people would actually pay to see them. He was right. People showed. Gorgodian scheduled events up and down the West Coast and the number of impersonators and fans grew. The sluggish but indefatigable success culminated in the founding of the WIAA in 1991, a year before Gorgodian’s death and five years after Bernard’s.
Kevin Richmond-Beach is not sui generis. Emil Fassbinder, a German architect, has been the “Other Pynchon” for the last several years, rivaling Richmond-Beach’s supremacy. The two men are aware of each other but have never met. Fassbinder mainly does equivalent events throughout Europe and Japan, in which he enjoys an almost cult status. One of the most apocryphal stories I’ve heard comes out of the Bill Vollmann camp. The story goes that a Japanese man, humbled by his encounter with Fassbinder, committed seppuku in the parking lot whilst clutching a copy of V.
There are, I come to find out, sometimes several impersonators for a single author. Evidently you’ve got: three Pattersons, five Sparkses, two Louis L’Amours, three Stephen Kings (regrettably absent to the consternation of many in attendance), three Donald Antrims believe it or not, two Anne Rules (an interesting subgroup largely marginalized even here: true crime), two Dave Eggerses (both new to the circuit and apparently really nice guys from what I understand), three Phillip Roths, two David Baldaccis, et alia.
However, Gwen Boylston is proudly the only Janet Evanovich. When I ask Boylston why more women aren’t represented both as impersonators and in the fan base her explanation is simple.
“Well,” she says, “first of all, you have to understand they’re out there, just not here.” Boylston is strangely seductive and I find it difficult to grapple with certain wanton arousal as the interview unfolds. “The RWIAA (unaffiliated with WIAA, the Romance Writer Impersonators Association of America is an equally socioculturally nettlesome can of worms that I won’t even bother to address) has gigs big as this, probably bigger, actually, except they’re just all romance impersonators. You know you’ve got Nora Roberts and Fern Michaels and Danielle Steel. I’ve never been but I hear they’re just huge. And I guarantee you won’t find a single man at one of those things unless they’re being dragged or they’re gay.”
And what about the women who read lit, arguably the largest demographic out there actually buying the stuff? Boylston offers this: “Women who read smart books are probably smart enough to get the joke and not fork over thirty bucks for a ticket.”
Science fiction is also underrepresented. There’s an octogenarian Robert A. Heinlein in the back corner that had to be wheeled in and a Philip K. Dick who claims to have known the real Dick but is sketchy on the details and is himself somewhat sketchy, having the reputation of being a dick who refuses to sign books and won’t shut up about his dubious relationship with the real Dick. Sci-fi apparently has such a surfeit of other conventions that few attend the WIAA events, the most common answer as to why being that nobody gives a shit. The consensus seems to be that sci-fi nuts, at least the readers, want the real deal and the idea of impersonators offering anything worthwhile is borderline offensive. This from the grouchy sci-fi goons asking for autographs from the Frank Herbert look-alike. I avoid them for the remainder of the day, despite the efforts of several who follow me around trying to get on record as being better than those pussies over at the Arthur C. Clarke booth who think their shit’s odor is inoffensive.
The sinuous line, undiminished, coils toward Richmond-Beach. I join the line, deciding I can’t leave without seeing what all the fuss is about. I want to experience, deeply and without irony, what these people so eagerly seek. What is it about him that induces prostration and glossolalia? As we speak there’s a man up ahead performing a Salah in the direction of Richmond-Beach. At the same time an uncooperative woman is escorted away. You can’t hear exactly what she’s chanting but it sounds like gibberish. Word reaches those of us at the back that Richmond-Beach is eating a BLT. The couple in front of me finds this puzzling.
As I vent to a pretty young woman with a cockeye about what a letdown Donald Barthelme was, a slight commotion begins to unfold behind us. An agitated man wearing a white turtleneck and bandana in the do-rag style attempts to engage another man who, from where I’m standing, looks remarkably like him. I suddenly realize I have to pee and ask the cute cockeyed girl if she wouldn’t mind saving my spot in line. She agrees and I say be right back and decide I’m compelled to ask her if she’d like to join me for a drink afterward and I picture the two of us drinking and flirting and very quickly a feeling of profound anxiety interrupts the fantasy and sort of hangs on me like a wet shirt and I mutter you chickenshit under my breath, the “you” being me, fully aware that in the crucial moment of asking I’ll chicken out and be angry with myself for the rest of the night, drunk and alone in my hotel room.
When I return the disruption has escalated. After asking around I learn what we’re all watching is a rather lopsided conversation between two David Foster Wallace look-alikes. Apparently it started when the do-rag Wallace started backslapping and high-fiving the other Wallace, who is visibly uncomfortable and attempts to ignore the obnoxious Wallace. I turn to the man next to me, a young, short guy wearing a Modern Lovers t-shirt and ask him for an update and he explains that the Wallace look-alike keeps telling DFW to call him his doppelgänger. And it hits me: the Wallace with his long hair pulled back, the one wearing the dark short sleeved button-down and jeans, this Wallace is not here as an impersonator. This is David Foster Wallace.
I am speechless. I am rapt. For the first time I experience what these fans have been trying unsuccessfully to convey, that profound moment when the Mystery suddenly reveals itself, when the inscrutable and numinous are ushered into perfect clarity. This is what you’ve been waiting for all your life. And then you realize how stupid you sound. Craig Blair, the Wallace impersonator, is clearly a fucktard. He really does keep insisting Wallace refer to him, both in real life and in whatever piece Wallace may or may not be intending to write about this convention, as his doppelgänger. I want to tell the guy to back off, to leave Wallace alone and stop badgering him. That Blair is taking his admiration too far.
But I don’t. I jot notes. I watch as Wallace rubs his forehead and scans for an escape route. A couple people try to confront the guy and tell him to drop it and walk away. It’s not a big scene or anything. A crowd hasn’t formed. People respect Wallace enough to leave him alone. I decide I think I like these people, not just those giving Blair a hard time but all the attendees, even the Nicholas Sparks fans. I like that Blair is the exception, that just about everyone here is unexceptionally and reassuringly normal, whatever that means, and genuinely kind and sufficiently enthusiastic about something to get them out of the house. They’re trying to connect. For the first time I understand. I feel like one of them.
I hear the adorable cockeyed girl’s voice.
“Hey asshole,” she says to Blair, “you are not David Foster Wallace.” Our eyes meet. She smiles at me. Together we rejoin the line, which has grown considerably, and talk about how weird it all is.
“Ever been to one of these?” I say.
“This is my first time,” she says. “It’s interesting, for sure.” When I ask why she decided to come she says, “When I heard Anthony Burgess was going to be here I had a minor freak-out. So I caved and bought a ticket.” I tell her Burgess considered A Clockwork Orange an opuscule and instantly play the reel of Scotty in Boogie Nights going “I’m a fucking idiot!” over and over in my mind’s projector room.
But to my surprise she explodes with excitement. Apparently, she is prone to minor freak-outs. She complains how everyone thinks of A Clockwork Orange because of the movie and neglects the masterworks like Earthly Powers, her favorite. Oh my god I say you’re kidding it’s one of my favorites. We share what must look from the outside like a pre-teen freak-out between girls, complete with jumping and briefly interlaced fingers as we celebrate some really, really big news. We discuss the Pynchon phenomenon and she confesses that she feels obligated to meet him. She tells me it’d be like going to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower. You just have to see it.
The line ahead of us shrinks and we start to get close. There’s a certain anxiety I can’t explain that waiting for anything engenders. His bodyguards, with their mustaches and polo shirts, stand like Secret Service agents, hands clasped over crotches. It’s bizarre and compelling. You start to buy into it.
“I’m Renee, by the way,” my companion says. I resist mentioning the rhyme and introduce myself. There’s a nervous pause in the wake of little proximally awkward waves (we’re approximately seventeen inches apart). We share a look of anticipation and solidarity, like those about to board a rollercoaster or parachute from a plane.
“I’m not even a big Gravity’s Rainbow fan,” she says.
“Me neither,” I say.
Then, “This is it. Here we go.”
The woman in front of us walks away, weeping. We approach the booth. Table. Richmond-Beach extends a hand and like a dumbshit I actually wipe my sweaty palm on the front of my shirt before I shake. I look over and Renee is staring, pale and expressionless. I remove the copy of The Crying of Lot 49 from her grip and place it on the table for Richmond-Beach to sign. I’ve seen pictures of Pynchon. The few that exist, the famous one of him in Navy blues. And Richmond-Beach looks exactly, and I mean exactly, like an older version of that young man. I find myself looking at him. Really looking. Scrutinizing. Surely he’s used to this, I mean that’s why he’s here.
“Who should I make it out to?” he says, lips curled over teeth. I lean in and without even realizing it I’m inches from his face. Our eyes meet. There’s a moment of nail-biting tension. And then it hits me. He clears his throat, leans over and starts to sign the book. I look over at Renee. She has officially checked out. Richmond-Beach closes the book and hands it back to me. And for just a second we share something. He grins and winks. I elbow Renee and she snaps out of it. We thank Richmond-Beach and walk off.
“Did he sign it?” she says. I open the book to the flyleaf’s inscription:
I glance back at the line that only seems to have grown longer, massive now, this living, breathing mystery without end. Everyone looks happy. Even Thomas Pynchon.
Nicholas Patrick Martin isn’t famous enough to be impersonated at WIAA events.