Last Friday night found most of the Tor.com staff piling into cabs in search of a semi-mythical place called Red Hook, where author (and occasional Tor.com blogger) Brian Francis Slattery was throwing a release party for his excellent second novel, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America.
Red Hook is an odd place: it’s close to Manhattan, but somehow impossible to get to. It’s a secret little pocket of Brooklyn, jutting out into the East River, away from its more thoroughly gentrified neighbors. It’s also the only piece of land in New York that directly faces the Statue of Liberty (since the statue is positioned so that she’s always looking back toward France, her place of origin). Which means that if you want to look Lady Liberty square in the eye, you go to Red Hook—a fact which should seem immediately relevant to anyone familiar with Slattery’s previous novel, Spaceman Blues: A Love Song, or Liberation, both of which can be considered complex, quasi-apocalyptic, multilayered love songs to New York City and to the vast expanse of the America beyond.
Sunny’s, the bar where Slattery has been playing music for several years, lies almost at the river’s edge, surrounded by warehouses and industrial-looking metal towers, with the glow of Manhattan in the distance. Established in 1890, Sunny’s possesses an effortless authenticity that seems foreign and barely recognizable to those of us raised in shopping-mall-chain-restaurant-America. Even at first glance, there is zero doubt that the establishment has come by every piece of its old school charm honestly, from the PBR lamps to the hanging Christmas lights, kitschy figurines, and the stack of records propping up a tray of Guinness draught cans. There’s a banjo made from an old metal bedpan hanging on one wall, and behind the bar sits a dusty bottle of Rocky Marciano Bourbon Whiskey, with the boxer’s face embedded into the glass, corked with a red mini-boxing glove. Sunny’s is the place that chains like Bennigan’s or T.G.I. Friday’s would sell their souls to emulate—if they had any soul to sell (therein, of course, lies the problem).
When we get inside, the band is almost ready to start. Slattery prefers to perform his material, rather than simply sitting and reading; as soon as he begins, we can all see why. His rhythms and cadences are made to be crooned and chanted; his descriptions gain color and intensity when accompanied by the wail of the saxophone, the undulating sounds of the bass, drums, and guitar. His earnestness and humor live a little more fully in the swell of sound even as he tells of dominion lost and gained, massacres, treachery, calculated destruction. The crowd loves it, the band loves it—Slattery himself is clearly having a ball.
For each short, selected reading, he gives the musicians a very general idea of the tone he’s looking for; for the third selection, he requests “sort of atonal circus music,” and after a minute or two the guys have come up with a bizarre-but-catchy, sinister polka—something a demented clown would probably dance to in David Lynch’s daydreams. For the next selection, they “get to play funk,” but Slattery requests that they make it “sad and desperate,” which all makes sense when he reaches the climax of the passage, chanting “This is what you use your freedom for?” over the seething clash of instruments. This segues into what Slattery refers to as “a big, fat anthem,” and as the keyboardists strike up a few 80s-sounding power chords, the drummer bellows, “It’s a Journey song!” Someone else yells, “Break out the mullet wigs!” and then Slattery starts channeling Bob Dylan and it all somehow works (though decidedly not in a “Don’t Stop Believing” kind of way).
The crowd insist on an encore and are rewarded with a slinky, sophisticated, samba-tinged ode to Los Angeles. We’ve ended our Liberation odyssey clear across the country, and Slattery cedes the stage to Sunny’s regular John Pinamonti, reappearing once in a while to sit in on honky-tonk fiddle throughout the evening. Between more traditional numbers, Pinamonti’s set includes “The Ballad of Biggie Smalls,” a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots” (performed on what looks like an electric ukulele), and a song appropriately titled “Spaceman Blues,” written for Brian’s first release party.
When it’s finally time to head out, Brian and his wife Stephanie offer us a ride out of the wilds of Red Hook (for which we could not have been more grateful). As we leave the river and Sunny’s behind us, it’s difficult not to think of the night as a pilgrimage as much as a party. Slattery’s work jubilantly celebrates the idea of America—weighing its dystopian elements against its potential, the darker parts of its past and present against its possible futures…how better to celebrate that potential than with friends and beer and music and storytelling in what may very well be the least pretentious bar in Brooklyn? In a place which too often seems to suffer from an oversupply of calculated irony and a dearth of imagination, Slattery and the crew at Sunny’s show no interest in posing or posturing, more than happy simply singing heartfelt, visionary rock and roll love songs out across the darkened river to the statue, and the city, and everything beyond—it was fun, and it was brilliant; for further proof, check out the videos below…
And for those who missed it, or can’t wait for more, Brian Slattery will be on hand to discuss Liberation at Freebird Books’ Post-Apocalyptic Book Club this Thursday, November 20th in Brooklyn. Please join us there, unless you can actually resist good times, great books, and the Post-Apocalypse all at the same time…