Freezing rain pelted the exterior of the West Tisbury library Sunday afternoon, but the inside was warm, compliments of hanging blankets from the M.V. Modern Quilt Guild and the dulcet sounds of comedian Jenny Slate and author Ben Shattuck.
Shattuck and Slate, who are engaged to be married and knee-deep in a nationwide tour, regaled the standing-room-only crowd with selections from their respective new works, “Little Weirds,” a collection of short, personal essays by Slate, and “The History of Sound,” a Pushcart prizewinning short story from Shattuck.
“We’ve been playing to audiences of like 1,700 people,” Shattuck told The Times after the event. “It’s so nice to be in a small community of welcoming, well-read people like here on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Indeed, neither Shattuck or Slate are foreigners to the Island; Slate finished “Little Weirds” here on-Island, and her parents are newly minted residents. Shattuck traveled here shortly after meeting Slate in Norway to woo his future bride.
If romance was in the air, so was excellent prose. Slate’s selections, “Treat,” “Fast Bad Baby,” and “To Norway,” recounted meetings with Shattuck (albeit couched in opaque terms), an envisioning of herself as a “a homemade Parisian croissant,” and recollections of her fast/bad babyhood being “rowdy,” and learning to speak in a torrent rather than one word at a time.
Slate, whose credits include stints on “Saturday Night Live” and appearances in television shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Big Mouth,” was the headliner, but her partner was not to be outdone, delivering poetic babies in slow rhythms spanning “a sitting person’s breath” and “katydids and trees stitching the night together.”
Fans of rock ’n’ roll shows might have recognized the evening’s format as something akin to “Dueling Guitars,” each talent speaking for a bit, delivering tidbits, and basking in applause only to hand the proverbial mic to the other in a good-natured bout of one-upmanship. It was apples and oranges, however, with a mix of eclectic styles that suited rather than competed with each other.
Highlights of the ethereal engagement included Slate’s contemplation, in “To Norway,” of a Norwegian woman in a business suit eating a hot dog in the airport. In the U.S., Slate opined, something would be considered ”going on” with this woman, but in Norway it was perfectly normal. Contemplating her life as a breakfast pastry, Slate explores being wanted, being an indulgence, and life feeling decidedly “not in place.” In “Hillside,” she speaks of a house purchased with her dog after “being heartbroken for the one-trillionth time.”
Slate’s comedic elements broke the ice, but Shattuck seemed to skate upon it. In his opus, of which he read three parts, the author inhabits a gay 20th century audiophile and his relationship with a traveling companion, with whom he sojourns in search of the ultimate musical compositions. This quest takes them to the hinterlands and through a cast of characters as unlikely as woodsmen and piano bar patrons.
“In a previous life, I was a painter,” Shattuck told the crowded room during a brief Q and A. “I used to show at the Carol Craven Gallery here on M.V. — it’s no longer here, but this place is still in my blood. I also run the Cuttyhunk Island Writer’s Residency.”
Audience members prodded the young couple on everything from life on the silver screen (Slate has starred in movies including “Obvious Child,” “Venom,” “Zootopia,” and “The Secret Life of Pets”) to the trials and tribulations of balancing love, Los Angeles, writing, and self.
“I need the time off from L.A.,” Slate confirmed, “to just be on the Island and concentrate and speak my own truth. In acting, you inhabit so many people, but you also need time to just inhabit yourself.”
Writers, artists, laypeople, craftsmen, businesspeople, library employees, patrons, and passersby all commingled at the special affair. “The event was requested by an anonymous patron,” Slate admitted at one point during the night. The audience was left wondering who that anonymous patron might be, but being thankful all the while that they had suggested the idea.
“Between the rivers cold and solemn,” a line from “The History of Sound,” strikes a chord: “The night was chilly, but the words were just right.”