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The four-letter review

Generally, people who frequent literary events tend to express displeasure with a reader by studying their fingernails or, at worst, emitting long-suffering sighs. It’s much less common to have a reading interrupted with a bawled obscenity. But this, to the alarm of those assembled, is precisely what happened at a recent Cover 2 Cover event at the Paradise Lounge. It happened when Atul Gawande, the third of the evening’s featured writers, reached the midway point of an essay on the social lives of ants.

"Fuck you!"

An odd occurrence, to say the least. But then Cover 2 Cover — a monthly series in which authors, musicians, and DJs perform works by other artists — isn’t your average literary event. "Most people think of readings as stifling," says Newtonville Books owner Tim Huggins, who runs the series with author and occasional Phoenix contributor Steve Almond. "We want to bring a level of fun to readings." He adds, "What writer gets to be heckled with a ‘Fuck you’? It’s a badge of honor." Gawande, too, remains unfazed by the verbal assault. "The prospect of violence," he says, "kept things lively."

From where I was standing, it was all a little too lively. As host for the night, I felt obliged to approach the offending audience member — a broad-backed guy with a fighter’s nose — and tap him on the shoulder. "One more of those," I said jerking my thumb at the door, "and you’re out." The guy, who was very drunk, looked at first as though he might respond with a forehead or a fist, but he finally regarded me with a vague, dying-man’s gaze and turned back toward the stage, which felt like a victory of sorts. "Fuck you!" he yelled a few minutes later. "Fuck yoooou!" Thank God for bouncers.

To some extent, I felt responsible for all this. The thing is, shortly before Gawande had taken the stage, I’d introduced him with the words: "He has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1998 — bastard. His first book, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, is now published in more than 75 countries — bastard." Perhaps my playful insults had inspired the "Fuck you" guy to chip in with a few of his own. Gawande, though, refuses to point the finger of blame. "I am a bastard," he admits.

So what did inspire the guy’s outburst? "At first, I thought maybe he was talking to the essay, that it was a ‘Fuck you’ to the ants," Gawande says. "But with the third ‘Fuck you,’ it was clear that it was me he was talking about. Not having ever met the guy, and seeing that he was a large human being, I decided to leave him alone." Huggins, meanwhile, has his own theories about the incident. The guy in question, it seems, had attended the event with a young woman, who’d spent a lot of time hovering around Gawande’s table. "The envious boyfriend thought, ‘I’ll get drunk and shout at Atul,’" Huggins says. "‘That’ll impress her.’"

In any case, Gawande, who also works as a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (bastard), insists he’s seen worse than this. "The usual reaction is that someone wants to show me their hernia and have me fix it," he says. "Heckling is much more fun." Quite. At the end of the evening, long after the lovelorn critic had skulked off into the night, the final act, Boris McCutcheon, wrapped up his set with a flourish on his guitar and, to a huge round of applause, a lusty "Fuck you!"

The next Cover 2 Cover event will take place at the Paradise Lounge on April 3. Call (617) 244-6619.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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