By Martha Bayne

The country picking of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts set a mellow tone for this year’s Firecracker Alternative Book awards, but on the edge of the empty dance floor one man in khaki pants pogoed vigorously up and down. The rest of the crowd–a hundred or so authors, editors, and publishing professionals–lurked in the shadows, sipping six-dollar cocktails and talking animatedly.

Five years ago a group of independent publishers who wanted to publicize their underfunded, overlooked books founded the FABs. Scheduled to coincide with BookExpo America, the industry’s annual meet ‘n’ greet weekend, the awards “celebrate insurrectionary culture that tosses a firecracker into the complacent mainstream”–work like Inga Muscio’s Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, or Carol Queen’s erotic novel The Leather Daddy and the Femme, both of which snagged a FAB last year. Unlike, say, the exclusive New York Review of Books party over at the Civic Opera House, which offered a nice big buffet full of clever food like mashed potatoes in martini glasses, the FABs don’t promise much beyond a good time, although they were giving away temporary tattoos at the door. Two years ago, the party was a raucous, gin-soaked affair. Last year, BEA abandoned Chicago for LA; this year, it returned to McCormick Place and the FABs returned to Crobar.

When the band finished a set they turned the stage over to Karen Finley, mistress of ceremonies. She wore zebra-striped pants under a long, sheer, frilly robe. Before presenting the awards she performed a short piece about cocksucking (she seemed to be against it) that segued into something about looking for God. “God sent me Jack Kerouac!” she yowled. “And I said Jack Kerouac! You lazy, fat, drunk slob! You’re no god to me!”

The first FAB category was best book of photography and art. Finley announced the winner, Trina Robbins for From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics From Teens to Zines. Finley looked out across the abyss of the dance floor. There was an awkward pause, then she laid the red plaque on the stage beside her and moved on. The next award didn’t have any takers, nor did the next. Finley’s pile of plaques grew. She looked confused and shuffled her notes, then ceded the stage to the next presenter, a middle-aged woman in a blue dress.

She announced that it had been 15 years since she’d purchased her first sex book, hiding it in a stack of cookbooks and Cosmos at the checkout stand. “Sex books have come a long way!” she exclaimed. The plaque went to Shawna Kenney for the memoir of her early years in leather, I Was a Teenage Dominatrix. Kenney was rumored to be in town for a reading at Quimby’s on Saturday, but she had apparently opted out of the FABs. The woman in the blue dress accepted the award on her behalf. On the perimeter, the crowd grew restless.

When Subcomandante Marcos’s embattled The Story of Colors won for best children’s book, a few in the audience joked that maybe the Zapatista leader himself would emerge from the jungles of Chiapas to accept the award. Instead Bobby Byrd, head of Cinco Puntos Press, took the mike. The audience perked up. The small El Paso press made headlines last year when the NEA stripped it of a $7,500 grant for the illustrated folktale, fearing that government money might somehow wind up in the hands of media-savvy Mexican revolutionaries. “This book was written by the Mayan peoples of Chiapas! Basta ya!” Byrd waved the plaque over his head.

A friendly man in shorts and a T-shirt presented the award for best drug book, happily reading off the list of nominees as the audience drifted toward the bar: The Hemp Cookbook: Seed to Shining Seed, How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z, The Little Book of Ketamine, Pills-A-Go-Go, and Pot Stories for the Soul. When the latter won, to the sound of six hands clapping, the friendly man peered out into the darkened club and then shrugged.

The award in politics went to Hyde Park’s own William Upski Wimsatt, author of No More Prisons. Even Upski was a no-show.

The award for best zine went to Fabula, a Bay Area girl-zine. No one materialized to accept, but local poet Thax Douglas leapt into the breach. “I came all the way from Seattle to accept this award,” he mumbled into the mike. Half an hour later, as he wafted through the club still clutching the plaque, he was heard to say, “I can’t believe they let me do that.”

Finally, after a few more increasingly desultory presentations, Karen Finley returned to wrap things up. “You people need to work on this award-acceptance thing,” she scolded.

The final award of the evening went to New York City’s Soft Skull Press–named the best independent press of the year. Publisher Sander Hicks bounded up onto the stage, tie askew. Soft Skull risked its shirt this year to republish J.H. Hatfield’s biography of George W. Bush, Fortunate Son. The book had been yanked from bookstores by the original publisher, St. Martin’s Press, one week after publication, under fire from the media and the Bush campaign over Hatfield’s dubiously sourced allegations of W’s youthful cocaine use.

Hicks founded Soft Skull in 1992, as a side project from his day job at Kinko’s. In the last eight years the press has published over 40 books, including Lee Ranaldo’s journals, Michael Stipe’s poetry, and Wimsatt’s scorching polemics. Soft Skull adopted the orphaned Hatfield book to prove that they, at least, weren’t susceptible to the pressures that rule the mainstream media. With the fire of a Pentecostal preacher Hicks worked the stage, rocking the mike like Steven Tyler, preaching the gospel of independent publishing. “The ruling class is boring!” he shouted, punching his fist in the air.