Lit Seen: The Unlikely Triumph of Two Dollar Radio; Bookforum Busts the Boom
Technically, the small, Ohio-based imprint Two Dollar Radio got its start after a 2003 cross-country car ride, during which fellow NYU graduates Eric Obenauf and Eliza Jane Wood accidentally fell in love. But the independent press really became what it is today on a lower level of Philip Glass's East Village townhouse, where Obenauf came one day in 2006 to court the author Rudolph Wurlitzer. Wurlitzer—a sometime screenwriter (Two-Lane Blacktop) who made his reputation in the literary world with his psychedelic 1969 debut, Nog—was looking for a publisher. Obenauf had just become one.
"I was maybe 24, 25?" says Obenauf, he and Wood laughing over speakerphone from their home in Granville, Ohio. "I still carried all my stuff in a backpack. So I showed up, and he introduced me to Philip Glass. We went downstairs, and the whole time while the two of us were talking, Philip Glass was in the room above us, playing the piano." Obenauf's pitch to Wurlitzer was more entertaining than convincing, but the conversation continued, and shortly after Two Dollar Radio switched their distribution from Biblio to the sizeable indie Consortium, they acquired The Drop Edge of Yonder, Wurlitzer's first novel in 24 years, which TDR published in April of last year.
In the house's 2009 catalog, a photo of Obenauf and Wood's daughter, Rio, lamping in sunglasses, adorns the first page. Beyond is a trove of extremely weird fiction: Gary Indiana's entertainingly caustic Fu Manchu pastiche The Shanghai Gesture, out this month; Joshua Mohr's Some Things That Meant the World to Me, an unreliably narrated torrent of child abuse and dumpster diving, due in June; Xiaoda Xao's The Cave Man, from a former denizen of Mao's jails; and a run of Wurlitzer reissues, including Nog and a "69ed" edition of Quake (1974) and Flats (1971). Crust, Lawrence Shainberg's gross-out nose-picking fantasia, and Erotomania, Francis Levy's pornographic romance, along with Drop Edge and the six other books the press has published since 2006, shore up the backlist.
In part, both Obenauf and Wood credit Johnny Temple, the musician, writer, and proprietor of Brooklyn's Akashic Books, for their swift ascension. "I read this article in an old issue of Punk Planet that Johnny Temple had written, saying that everybody should start their own book publishing company," says Obenauf. "So I sent him an e-mail." Temple helped arrange Obenauf's eventual introduction to Wurlitzer. Akashic—along with the Grove Press of the '50s and '60s, and John Martin's fabled Black Sparrow Press—also provided Two Dollar Radio with a model to follow: aesthetically consistent, editorially adventurous, and manageably tiny.
Obenauf and Wood, who sport matching wrist tattoos of the Two Dollar Radio logo, run the press from home, fitting in long hours around the day jobs they still work in order to help sustain TDR's hopelessly non-commercial list. "From what I've read about the way publishing functioned in the past, they'd see the rationale for publishing a joke book in order to subsidize publishing William Faulkner," says Obenauf. "I think that's something that's been lost in modern publishing. Now it's more like a book about pre-teen vampires to subsidize another book about pre-teen vampires."
Since Bookforum's new Cultural Obituaries series at the New York Public Library is, proudly, a string of well-intentioned stabs at some very big social forces–type questions, let us counter with one nagging question of our own. Who is the all-time favorite Wire character of random NYPL attendees? And while I'm disappointed to report that April 14's "The Death of Boom Culture?" panel—featuring novelists Susan Straight and Dale Peck, critic Walter Benn Michaels, and Wire creator David Simon himself—did not quite manage to conclusively remove the interrogative from the end of the evening's chosen topic, it did nevertheless illuminate that, on questions of the Wire, as in so much else, New Yorkers tend to follow our president's lead. No surprise, maybe, but we can't help but recommend the sight of a roomful of basically upstanding citizens shouting, in ecstatic unison, the name of a gay, kleptomaniacal killer: "Omar!"
That would be as close to agreement as anyone would get all night. The evening's ostensible purpose was to shift through the ashes of apocalyptic economic collapse in search of literature's guilty fingerprints: "Stories told by rich people, to other rich people," as Michaels memorably characterized the novel's role in spreading market ideology. Straight dissented, noting that she "spent the night before last trapping a raccoon" at home in Riverside, California, where the wealthy are not particularly in evidence. Nor do they come around much in West Baltimore, according to Simon, where, in the '90s, whole neighborhoods of deeply poor people could be found living entirely outside of the rich-person-to-rich-person feedback loop, "watching Friends and saying, 'What the fuck?' " After 90 minutes or so of ever-more-strident, ad hominem debate, we could relate.
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