PEN American Center's World Voices Fest Kicks Off With Tipsy, Seafaring Literati

Photo: Photo Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images, iStockphoto

PEN American Center is known for its glamorous affairs — galas held in such places as the Natural History Museum, just under the blue whale. Yesterday's luncheon to inaugurate this year's World Voices Festival promised more of the same. But something was lacking, at least in the preliminaries. Maybe it was having to take a bus (or walk, which we don't recommend) through the winding, desolate streets of Red Hook, where the Queen Mary 2 is docked; or surrendering your driver's license upon arrival; or attesting on a form that you have not "developed any symptoms of diarrhea or vomiting within the last two days"; or passing through an airport-style security gate along with middle-aged couples headed for the Bahamas.

Conditions improved (or maybe it was just the Champagne) within the ship's starry-domed auditorium, where the event quickly turned promotional. Cunard's Commodore Bernard Warner extolled the virtues of his boat, which has "a long form, a deep draft, and a gorgeous, streamlined hull" (at which point various tipsy literati tittered). Jonathan Ames talked up his forthcoming novel. Dale Peck gave out plastic kazoos and flyers for an upcoming literary bake sale, the highlight of which will be Rick Moody's throwing a pie at Peck — who once called Moody "the worst writer of his generation" ("If he misses me I'll call him the worst pie-thrower of his generation," Peck told us). Past PEN American Center president Salman Rushdie was promoting his own book in London — which is why he couldn't make the ceremony. After current head Francine Prose gave a preview of this year's festival, there was a brief rock show from a twee punk band called Peacock's Penny Arcade (accordion: check).

Champagne and river views aside, the highlight had to be the dizzying sensation of cognitive dissidence induced by hearing Peacock's Penny Arcade scream, "Die Dick Cheney, Die Motherfucker" as the commodore and Bahamas-bound passengers heading to their cabins looked on bemusedly. (The ship was lifting anchor at five sharp.) Glamorous? Maybe not. But novelist Colum McCann, who'd been a reporter in Dublin, took it in stride. "Ligging — that's what everybody's doing," he said. "I used to be a professional ligger." It's an Irish journalist's term for a day spent freeloading at cocktail party after cocktail party. As ligs go, this one was more or less worth the slog. —Boris Kachka