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Beyond Bohemian

August 16, 1992|Susan Reynolds

It's the ides of August. Literary life across the country slows to a half-hearted crawl. But in Venice, Calif., in the old City Hall built in 1907, writers in Beyond Baroque's Reading Series continue to push the limits of literature.

The Reading Series hosts 80 authors a year. On a recent muggy Friday night we went out to hear a double bill: Darius James and William Vollmann, two brave new authors. Vollmann, whose most recent books are "Fathers and Crows" and "An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World," has gotten a lot of mainstream praise in the publishing world, and has been compared to Pynchon and Burroughs. He looks, however, like someone who just walked off the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. It wasn't the plaid shirt or the farmer's hat that said "butterfly." It was the metal case that looked as though it once held a high-school clarinet. From it, Vollmann unpacked a small revolver, scanning the audience with his computer-programmer eyes. To punctuate the reading, Vollmann would point the gun at the ceiling and fire. Blanks, but in a black room rapidly filling with smoke and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, who can be sure? By the third shot, anxiety made it impossible to concentrate on the story Vollmann was reading. (For the record, it was about the Iroquois, and it contained several graphic descriptions of torture.)

We cornered Darius James at the intermission, to ask about his new book, "Negrophobia." There's been a lot of controversy over the cover--a large blackface mask--and a couple of bookstore employees have quit or threatened to quit when stores began stocking the book. James looked over his wire rim glasses at us, eyes akimbo, and made it clear that the feebs who misunderstood his anti-racist book belonged on a separate planet for the terminally dull-witted. When he took the podium, a lot of language started flying around the room, not all of it wholesome. We may have been the only prudes wincing.

The name Beyond Baroque came to founder George Drury Smith "in the night" as the name for an avant- garde poetry magazine. In 1968, the organization took shape around a writers' workshop, readings, an alternative-press bookstore and library, music, dance, theater and film screenings. In the last two years, under new executive director D. B. Finnegan, the annual budget has increased from $85,000 to $272,000. Fifty percent of this budget comes from the bookstore, 25% from government funding and 25% from private foundations, including the California Arts Council, the Lannan Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

It's an arty crowd, friendly, looking for something different. Some evenings are more conventional than others, so call before you pack the bullet-proof vest.

Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd. Telephone (310) 822-3006 .

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