Long ago, I went to the inaugural reading at a downtown arts space in Flagstaff, AZ. The place wasn’t much more than an unfinished basement with some chairs set up all facing one direction and a clip-on work light hanging up so the readers could see what was on the page. I don’t remember there being a cover—surely I would’ve skipped the event, if there were—and I don’t remember anything being for sale. I do remember a ramshackle room in the back where the guy running the space clearly lived. There also seemed to be an unspoken openness to shaggy guys like me bringing my own 40 to the reading.
The guy who read first was a big, palooka-looking dude whom I’d hung out with a couple of times. I wasn’t too sure about the guy. He seemed to have a taste for whiskey and the trouble that tends to accompany it. I also knew he was a big Thomas Pynchon fan. And that was about all I knew of him. Pynchon and whiskey. Not the most auspicious start, but surely a common enough one to seem almost cliché among white, male, American writers.
He read an insane story, something about a farmer using a yak as a work animal. Who knows exactly what it was about? I remember lines from it, I think verbatim: “Yak man, hoeing and yakking, yakking and hoeing. Yak man.” And he’d really slam the delivery of yak man. Something about those two words were important, somehow to someone. “Yak man!”
It cracked me up. I don’t know why. I also decided the dude was nuts and I should stay away.
Nearly twenty years later, this same guy opened up my book release for Madhouse Fog. I’ve seen him read dozens of times, set up several of his shows, read at several shows he’s set up. I’ve regularly attended his Vermin series. I worked with Gorsky Press to publish his collection of short stories, Big Lonesome. I’ve read all seventy-something columns he’s written for Razorcake. I’ve forgotten to tell a few incriminating stories about him in the hope that he’ll forget to tell a few incriminating stories about me.
Watching him read at Skylight last weekend, I couldn’t get that damn yak man out of my head. Not because of all the hoeing and yakking. Because of something that happened right after that long-ago reading. A mutual friend of ours—one who knew that Ruland had lived in LA prior to coming to Flagstaff—said, “One thing you learn about doing readings in LA, man, is that you gotta bring it. They’ll kill you if you don’t.”