This past Friday, the back room of the Powell’s Bookstore at UIC campus served as the new home for Bad Grammar Theater, a monthly event described on its website as a “reading series featuring Chicago’s rising and established authors.” It used to take place a good deal further south, in the Chicago Arts District, but just changed locations earlier this year, and may be suffering from some attendance problems as a result. On this particular night, Brendan Detzner, the organizer, makes it clear that readings must proceed apace, since each writer only has fifteen minutes in which to perform.
This night’s incarnation of the Theater showcases a trio of writers who share the same forename: Chris. The first Chris reads speedily, a bit breathless but still self-assured, and when he finishes there is polite applause as he limps back to his seat and sits down, but not before briefly plugging his own local writing contest. The second Chris follows the first, wearing thick black glasses and reading (from a Nook, no less) a noir story in the style of James Cain. He cheerfully acknowledges he has borrowed liberally from Cain in the writing of this piece, and this quickly becomes evident, as the hardboiled protagonist gruffly flirts with a woman over a martini before casually taking care of a bad guy on his way to cleaning up his tarnished reputation. Like Chris #1, he reads in a hurried manner. After he finishes, he reiterates his enthusiasm for villains and anti-heroes of all types before walking back to his seat, hands raised in the air, giving a shout-out to the fictional criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu.
After this comes Chris #3, who sports a big, beautiful, meticulously-groomed beard. This Chris presents an excerpt from his latest novel, which focuses on a middle-aged man suffering the usual existential ennui of suburbia. In the novel, the protagonist is suddenly confronted with the knowledge that he possesses some sort of super-power. The story is generally pleasant, if a bit bland. There is one particularly enticing metaphor in which the narrator describes a school building disgorging children in brightly hued jackets and hats as “vomiting crayons.” It’s fresh and witty, and comes as a nice change of pace after Chris #2’s too-faithful tribute to crime fiction.
The fourth reader, following the trilogy of Chrises, is veteran Bad Grammar reader Lawrence Santoro. Santoro, who has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for horror writing multiple times, comes off as both knowledgeable and affable, while quoting Ray Bradbury in order to explain the origin of one of his books. He writes rather like Bradbury, too, crafting a neatly grotesque story—with just the right amount of detail—about a lonely, fatherless boy, Clem, and his imaginary enemy Clown, who haunts him. The writing is appropriately morbid for a self-described horror author (Clem mentions, at one point, the sad night of “Daddy’s aneurysm party”), but the passion and drama he puts into the reading are what really distinguish Santoro from his colleagues.
Where many of them were hurried and flat, Lawrence lingers, drawing out syllables, fully inhabiting each character, and generally putting on a thrilling performance. When his fifteen minutes are over, he merely cocks an eyebrow at the audience, smiles wryly, and gently closes the book, leaving the audience wishing for more as he strolls back to his seat.