The terms of the book tour for my new novel, "The End of the Jews," are these: My cellphone must stay on, charged, and within reach. There is only a five-week differential between the book's drop date and my first child's. I am sprinting through seven cities in 11 days, so as to be home in Berkeley, Calif., a se emingly safe two weeks before that second date. All my flights are changeable. I'd like to avoid answering a spousal call from behind a podium, but I'm prepared to do so. I even have my Rudy Giuliani joke worked out in advance.
The timing is tricky, but it could be worse. My book could come out a month from now.
My strategy here is to make all the people I want to see meet me at restaurants or record stores. I lived here for 10 years, so I've whittled the city down to its essentials: Senegalese fish with okra sauce at Joloff in Bed-Stuy, hearty Dominican breakfasts at any restaurant in Washington Heights, Venezuelan ceviche and arepas at tiny Flor's Kitchen, just south of Union Square. Pizza at Ben's on West 3d Street, catty-corner from the Blue Note, and where the musicians eat between sets unless they favor the falafel spot up the street.
The city's used-vinyl district comprises 10 square blocks in the East Village. Sound Library on Orchard Street is where hip-hop's royalty cop rare, expensive slabs of funk on the way to the recording studio. I leave empty-handed, then get my fingers dusty at Academy Records on East 10th, A-1 on East 6th, Good Records on East 3d. If I had time, I'd trek to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, where a gentleman named Israel operates a store you enter through a basement bulkhead. There is no shelving system, just countless teetering stacks of mysterious wax. Israel stands tall in the middle of everything, before a chessboard. I'm about 1-15 against him. But when I won, the records were practically free.
At McNally Robinson Booksellers on Prince Street, a beautiful independent bookstore in a city - a country - overrun by chains, I have my first great tour moment: I see somebody buy my novel. I resist the urge to pop out from behind a banquette like Marshall McLuhan in "Annie Hall," but this is huge. Publishing is an enormously fraught enterprise - waiting for reviews, hoping people show up to events, sometimes praying the friends who promised to come will bail, so they don't see you playing to an empty room - and even the most anecdotal affirmation matters.
Joe's Pub is packed for my event . . . well, the event I'm doing along with six other people. My cellphone does ring while I'm onstage, but it's not Victoria.
New Yorkers dress optimistically in March, as if the temperature might shoot from 48 to 58 at any moment. It's just as cold here, but Bostonians delude themselves in the opposite direction. Nobody's taken off their puffy jackets yet.
Normally, doing readings in Boston during the first two days of the baseball season would be disastrous, but with the Red Sox playing at 6 a.m. in Japan, I've dodged a bullet.
I grew up in Newton, but these three jam-packed days are full of new experiences. One morning, I'm booked on a local TV show in Lawrence, and after an hour's drive, I find myself squinting in the sharp sunlight as I walk up the deserted main street of this clearly ailing city in search of the station. When I find it, the door is locked. I have no number to call, and there's no bell. I panic for a moment, then pull harder. The door groans open and I walk down a long, dark hallway. The hostess has arranged about 20 little dolls and toys on a low table in front of us, all of them thematically related to my book. The interview is long and exceedingly pleasant.
From there, I drive to the heart of the Back Bay. Parking takes 15 minutes, and I have to dodge a surprising number of strollers as I jog up Beacon Street to be interviewed in the sprawling home of the venerable Smoki Bacon. Oil paintings cover every inch of wall space, and her husband mans the camera in a jacket and bowtie. I'm hard-pressed to get a word in, but this is fine, as Smoki is more interesting than I am anyway. She shows me her grandchildren's poetry, which I agree is quite impressive.
Driving back to Newton, I realize that I still expect there to be a Tower Records at the top of Newbury Street. Not that I'd be allowed in if there was. When I was 14, I ripped the head off a life-sized cardboard cutout of MC Hammer - I was defending hip-hop from him - and got banned from the store for life.
At least the graffiti galleries alongside the Mass. Pike are still there. This stretch of concrete is one of the longest-running exhibits in Boston, an array of aerosol artistry as competitive as it is visible. I recognize few of these names - gone are dominant writers of my youth, guys like ISM, SEX, RELM, and the Five Angry Vandals - but there's still a lot of talent in evidence. Even from the window of a moving car.
I'm finally somewhere I've never been, and it's so warm and picturesque that for about five minutes I consider moving here. Downtown Charlottesville is centered around a long pedestrian mall full of restaurants and coffee shops and outdoor tables. I count four bookstores, which is downright inspiring. I'm here for the VABook! festival, speaking on a panel called - I can hardly bear it - Nice Jewish Writers Gone Wild.
It is indeed wild, thanks in large part to the always-hilarious A.J. Jacobs, but not as wild as the ride I take to a reception at the home of the University of Virginia's president. I'm alone on a chartered bus, winding through endless blocks of antebellum-looking frat houses. Any structure more elaborate than an outhouse is seemingly required to have columns. I'm talking politics with the driver, and just as I mention having heard that Charlottesville is a bastion of liberalism in this conservative state, we pass a frat house flying an enormous Confederate flag.
At the party, I meet identical-twin 12-year-old authors. They collaborated on a sci-fi book with their father, and they are wearing matching white space-girl outfits. They speak in soundbites. Their father hovers nearby, passing out promotional postcards. This is a horrifying new trend in publishing, but a real innovation in the field of child exploitation. I want to pull the guy aside, tell him there's no money in literature.
As we cruise down I-64, through farmland edged by strip malls, my driver tells me that he was on this highway last week, chauffeuring the comedian Charlie Murphy, when police shut it down to search for a sniper firing at motorists. Took them five hours to budge an inch, he says. I was supposed to take a train to D.C., but it was running four hours late. This guy is saving my life.
We arrive while the town is still sleepy and the only people out are joggers and
Victoria calls as we're pulling up to Politics & Prose. After months of thinking the baby was head down, our midwife is now unsure. Victoria's having another ultrasound tomorrow, and if the baby is in breech, we'll need to do a "version" - a manual turning by a doctor - or else rotate the plan 180 degrees, from a home birth to a Caesarean. Oh, and if the baby's heart rate drops during the version, they might have to deliver her then and there.
Chicago has an identity so strong it makes other cities look ambivalent by comparison. It's not the prettiest city, but it has nothing to hide: The industrial past is underneath everybody's fingernails, the waterways remain hideously polluted, the mayor's an old-time despot who does things like bulldoze airfields in the middle of the night after the City Council voted against it. It's "The City That Works," and everyone I know here is nose-to-the-grindstone, even the writers. Chicago is big and busy enough for artists to gig year-round without traveling, like my man Kevin Coval, the city's unofficial poet laureate, who traces his artistic lineage exclusively through Chicagoans: Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks. Where else does that happen?
Out of respect for the Chi, I've got wall-to-wall gigs: high schools, colleges, bookstores. They all go smoothly. My talking points have cohered; I finally feel like I know how to talk about this big, sprawling book. But the baby is in breech after all. I call my publicist, have her cancel Madison and Minnesota and cut Chicago short. I leave town on the next thing smoking. Luckily, it's a plane.
The version is stressful, but successful. Barring further surprises, our baby will come into the world headfirst. I hope she'll live that way, too.
I've got a dozen more gigs lined up for the book, but none more than an hour's drive away - 20 minutes, the way I plan to drive if Victoria goes into labor. The poignancy of publishing a novel about family as I'm about to start one of my own has taken on a new order of magnitude as the day approaches, and all I want to do is stay close to home and help this little person make the first journey of her life. Those few inches are worth all the miles in the world.
Adam Mansbach, a writer in Berkeley, Calif., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Vivien Vega Iolanthe Mansbach was born, headfirst, on April 22.