On A Dark Desert Highway:
Awful Memories of Readings


Way back when I was a lad, I had a novel called “Desperadoes” published. With hindsight, the name may have been a mistake. Two years of telling people the title of your new book only to have them go: “Oh really? You’re a fan of The Eagles, are you? Didn’t they have a song called “Desperado”?

You have slaved away for years crafting this noble, intelligent and perceptive tome, only to have it sullied by comparison with a tawdry so-called “song” by Southern California’s answer to the Osmond brothers. You have spent all that time almost alone, writing. But now; you have to do The Author Tour.

You arrive in the first town. Your publishers have mistakenly put you up in a sensationally expensive hotel, thinking you were somebody else. It is the kind of hotel where they knock on the door every fifteen minutes and come in to turn down the bed-sheets. You are not used to this. The kind of hotel you USUALLY stay in, they knock on the door every fifteen minutes and shout: “Time’s up, Mac.”

But you begin to feel good about yourself. Hey, you’re a real author now. You strut around the enormous bathroom like a black polo-necked peacock, opening and sniffing the miniature plastic bottles of hair tonic, shoe polish and hand cream. You sniff so hard that you begin to hallucinate. The room pulses and vibrates in the manner of early Led Zeppelin videos, or the beginnings of flashbacks in cheaply-made soap operas. But you’re feeling cocky. All that hard work was worth it. You should really go home right now, while you’re still feeling good. But you don’t. You make the mistake of turning up to do…the reading.

Nothing in life brings you back to reality like arriving at a bookshop in a rainy northern English town to find the pallid and overworked staff trying to spread out and look like a crowd.

If you are EXTREMELY lucky, there might be thirty people at your reading. Perhaps ten will have come to hear you read and – miracle of miracles! – to buy your book. But ten of the others will have come to shuffle up to you before the reading begins and explain frankly how they read your LAST book and thought it a festering mound of rubbish, how they are all writing much more interesting books themselves, and how they would not buy your new book even at gunpoint. Of the remaining punters, four will be distant cousins who live in this godforsaken locality, begrudgingly press-ganged into turning up by their parents, who have threatened to disinherit them otherwise. You will not have seen them since you were seven, when you gave one of them a severe Chinese burn for saying your mother had a moustache. There will be two postgraduate English literature students down at the back. And there will be at least one amiable schizophrenic, who has wandered in for the free glass of Blue Nun and the tepid sausage roll.

You stand about for a few minutes feeling nervous. You attempt small talk with the manager and his underpaid staff. If you are Irish, as I am, the small talk will invariably be about how well RODDY DOYLE is doing. “Oh yeah”, the manager will laugh, “we ‘ad Roddy Doyle here last May and they were hanging out of the rafters. We had to turn four hundred people away!” You swear like a sodden sponge. You swig from a bottle of warm Harp. You light up a cigarette, forgetting that you’re in a bookshop so you’re not allowed to smoke. You stub your cigarette out in an empty beer bottle. Moments later, you forget you have done this, and you take a big reassuring swig from the beer bottle. You throw up all over the cash register.

Nobody has a tissue, so you absent-mindedly rip pages out of big thick books, and when the mop-up is finished the manager sighs and says you would have got a much better crowd if it wasn’t for the Match, or the Weather, or the Time of Year, or the fact that Coronation Street is on tonight, when what he really means is that you would have got a much better crowd if you were Roddy Doyle. You feel people’s eyes glaring at you, and then glaring at the life-size poster of you that has been sellotaped to the wall behind the wonky lectern where you are going to read. In the photo, you are slim, smiling, relaxed, groomed, and then very thoroughly airbrushed just to be on the safe side. In real life you are tired, tense, messy, grinning like a botched brain surgery case. You cut yourself shaving earlier, so a crimson hunk of toilet paper is dangling from your double chin. You couldn’t get the trouser-press in your room to work so your trousers look like you recently played second-row for Munster without bothering to take them off. The manager introduces you. “Joe will be reading from his new novel, Desperadoes.” Then he grins broadly. “Let’s hope all the Eagles fans are in tonight!” You stand up and begin to read.

The till bleeps and jingles all the way through your reading. All the jokes on which you worked so hard fall utterly flat, but as if to compensate for this, people laugh at the tender moments with such ferocity that you fear they will rupture themselves. Then – just as you to get to the particularly poignant bit, about granny dying with the cute little puppy the orphan gave her in her arms, the schizophrenic stands up, drops his trousers, and starts going on about being followed around by the government. Glancing up, you notice that the manager is gnawing his lip now. His own lip, that is. Not the schizophrenic’s lip.

Back in the hotel you eat all the peanuts in the mini-bar. This makes you unbelievably thirsty, so you start drinking heavily. You fall into a coma and wake up at dawn on the bathroom floor, singing “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life”, with the plastic bottle of body lotion in your mouth and the disposable shower cap on your head. The hotel manager is knocking on the door, wondering what the commotion is about. You invite him in for a drink! He is cross. He tells you he would like you to check out. You don’t understand. You grab him by the lapels. You can check out any time you like, you tell him – but woah, you can never leave.


This piece is extracted from The Irish Male: His Greatest Hits, a compilation of Joseph O’Connor’s non-fiction published by New Island Books.



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