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Myla Does Maryland

Goldberg brings her page act to the stage

Jacob Silverman
October 07, 2011

“You’re going to get what I call an entertainment lap dance,” said Liam McEneaney. The man responsible for the Writings With Music series, which enlists writers to read while a jazz band improvises behind them, was acknowledging one of the unfortunate vicissitudes of cleverly conceived cultural programming: sometimes nobody shows. In this case, the crowd topped out at about nine—one chicly dressed couple showed up halfway through and left 10 minutes later—and included this reporter and a 92YTribeca employee. The crowd practically swelled when the performers—McEneaney, memoirists Kambri Crews and Jane Borden, Village Voice rock critic Chris Weingarten, and novelist Myla Goldberg, who headlined—were in their seats.

No lap dances were given, but they might not be out of place at the 92YTribeca, which, with the right set-dressing, could double as a strip club in a PG-13 movie: simple black furniture, small orbs of yellow light strung liberally throughout the room, cherry red curtains, a ceiling with exposed ductwork painted black, a red leather booth running the length of one wall, facing the L-shaped bar. It’s the kind of place you might take someone on a third date.

Goldberg performed an essay that she contributed to State by State, a 2008 anthology, inspired by the old WPA Writer’s Project, that assigned each of the 50 states to a particular writer. Goldberg was tasked with Maryland—”somehow they found out I was from there,” she deadpanned—and produced a droll meditation about the Old Line State’s Civil War history (Lincoln jailed nine legislators to prevent them from voting for secession); her childhood in the shadow of secret government organizations (her father seems to have worked for the National Security Agency); and her quixotic quest for an authentic piece of nature in a planned community in Prince George’s County (she spent an afternoon enraptured by a pig farm that turned out to be a U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility surrounded by razor wire).

(Weingarten told a story about interviewing Ministry in 2006, when the band’s singer related a story about a roadie, who, late at night, hopped a fence at a zoo and performed an unspeakable act on an ostrich. The singer watched helplessly while the ostrich flipped out and chased the demented roadie around the enclosure. This may sound horrific in the light of day, but it was, I promise you, hilarious in its telling and fittingly discomfiting. At least the day of repentance is soon.)

Goldberg had never written about her home state before. “I didn’t want to think about it,” she told the crowd—or at least the assembled group of friends, which included members of her art-punk band The Walking Hellos, for whom Goldberg plays banjo and accordion and sings vocals. “I left [Maryland] as soon as I could,” she told me when we spoke before her performance.

The reasons for her anxiety never explicitly emerged, but Goldberg’s piece—a scattershot mix of personal history and Maryland historical anecdotes, some charmingly arcane—seemed to fill a need to reflect on her past, if more modestly than with the blunt pickaxe of memoir.

“I get strange if I spend too much time alone,” Goldberg told me, explaining that performances like these were a welcome break from working on her next novel, which is in its very early stages and is about “the nature of ambition.” The event also precedes some readings that Goldberg will be doing to mark the paperback release of her latest novel, The False Friend.

Describing her piece, Goldberg said, “I can’t do funny, but I can do weird.” A line of finely tuned self-deprecation, this statement is also totally wrong: Goldberg is terribly funny. From her cartographic aids—which included a map of the United States with an arrow pointing to Maryland, as if we needed much assistance—to her leading the crowd in a sing-along of “Maryland, My Maryland”—whose tune is stolen from “O Tannenbaum” and whose lyrics resemble a bad Tennyson poem—Goldberg displayed enough theatrical flair and unembarrassed brio to revitalize the audience.

When the event ended, there was no crowd to disperse, no exit procedures to explain. The band simply powered down while the performers continued talking to their guests and to one another. I briefly cornered Goldberg and asked her what plans she had for Yom Kippur. “I’m not a big Jew,” she said, but she would be fasting. Why did the holiday appeal to her? In one of a number of remarks that seemed like nothing more than a clever continuation of her stage act, she smiled and said, “I like the guilt-enhancing underpinnings.”

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.