October 31, 2009—by Tyler Stoddard Smith—The Texas Book Festival was a veritable feast of literary delights, none more savory than the “boot-up-your-ass” brawl during the Lone Star State’s first Literary Death Match in Austin. Festivalgoers may have been a bit bemused at learning the forum for the LDM was not a bar called "The Sanctuary" (as I first thought) but in fact an actual sanctuary housed in the First United Methodist Church. However, the proceedings were as bare-knuckled and bawdy as they come, House o’ the Lord be damned.
Host Erin Hosier, undaunted by the surrounding holiness, threw down the rules and gave a rollicking intro to the packed church. The judging panel featured two Pulitzer Prize winners, Jane Smiley (judging literary merit) and Richard Russo (judging performance), along with local favorite Owen Egerton (judging intangibles and suggesting an orgy to Jane Smiley).
Round One featured Austinite Amelia Gray (AM/PM) vs. Kyle Beachy (The Slide). Beachy won the coin flip and opted to let Gray, in her fishnet stockings (these would be brought up quasi-creepily time and time again by judge Russo) go first, a tragic mistake for Beachy. Gray launched into Beachy straight-up Texas beatdown style with a barrage of insults written on tiny Post-its, including a coin-filled sock with which she threatened to throttle the bespectacled Chicagoan. "May a black rain fall on your future children—and lambs," Gray seethed, gnashing her teeth, continuing the rat-a-tat dissing with aplomb.
Beachy performed admirably, invoking strong imagery, including a threat to chop off Angelina Jolie’s "spikey-haired Cambodian kid’s head" and blow up both Graceland and the Corn Palace (judge Smiley recommended he blow up the St. Louis Arch, as well). In the end, though, the judges went with Gray while Beachy fumed, murmuring of a rigged panel.
Next up: Jeff Martin (editor, The Customer is Always Wrong) versus Jason Sheehan (Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love, and Death in the Kitchen), a couple of kitten-looking innocents with their literary claws out. Martin drew first blood with a diatribe featuring unknown perks given to Nobel laureates. Judges Russo and Smiley were visibly aroused at the mention of the word "Nobel," although later Russo would claim an American would never win again, prompting Smiley to retort "well, step it up, Ricky," adding a little bit of LDM to the Star Chamber. Martin went on to articulate that Nobel-Prize winners get to take the (sub)subway when in Paris and New York and have access to nine vaccines for diseases that don’t have vaccines. Things looked good for Martin, with judge Russo lauding his "investigative journalism," Egerton going on a patriotic rant that nearly stole the show, and Smiley speaking French for some reason.
Sheehan then stepped up to the mike for a rapid-fire memoir about his family dressing him up to look like a lederhosen-clad ham, interspersed with nostalgia of his first restaurant job. Sheehan and Martin looked neck-and-neck, although Russo made an interesting comment about trying to fit three pounds of sausage into a one pound sausage casing—an allusion to Sheehan’s wealth of material spoken at breakneck speed. In the end, the judges couldn’t decide on a winner and it came down to a coin-flip with Sheehan emerging victorious.
Gray and Sheehan then, having dispatched Beachy and Martin, readied for the final round. They were both asked to don masks—the Austin LDM debut coinciding with Halloween, and creating a weird, voodoo vibe—and sit at opposite ends of the "stage." They were then asked a series of Texas trivia questions, including "What soft drink was invented in Waco, Texas?" (Dr. Pepper); "which Texan wrote The Talented Mister Ripley?" (Patricia Highsmith); the same for Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry) and finally, "How many babies to armadillos typically have in a given litter?" (Four, duh…).
In the end, the local girl made big by answering three out of four correctly while Sheehan panicked, guessing that armadillos had 55,461 babies per litter. The crowd made an unholy rumpus and cheered Gray as the rest of the LDM contestants hung their heads in bloody defeat. Amelia and her fishnet stockings strode victoriously down the aisle, out the church doors and onto Lavaca Street in the blistering Texas sunlight.