"I'm really sorry to do this via e-mail," began the message Asha Anderson received from her friend Cullen Carter's wife, Allyson, on April 9. "Last Tuesday night (April 1st) on his way home (biking) from class, Cullen was hit by a pickup truck who apparently never saw him, even though he had lights on his bike. It was right at dusk. Cullen hit the windshield, then hit the roof, denting it, and then landed in the bed of the truck....Right now, Cullen is in a deep coma."
Anderson, a writer and zine publisher who lives in Nevada, had never met Carter in person; they struck up a correspondence after meeting in the alt.zines newsgroup. She didn't know his wife at all. But when she finished reading the message, which went on to give the details of Carter's brain injury--not to mention his broken hip, bruised lungs, facial lacerations, cracked ribs, and fractured vertebrae--she did as Allyson requested, posting the text to the newsgroup to get the word out to the zine community. In short order she also created a page about Carter on her Web site (www.ashabot.com) that's now home to weekly updates from Allyson on his condition (he's out of the coma now), anecdotes about Carter and his writing from friends and fans, and several of Carter's short stories. She also set up a PayPal account to collect donations toward his medical bills.
Before the accident, Carter, who's 27, was studying to be a librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The father of a two-year-old daughter, he published a personal zine for the last few years called The Secret Lives of Snakes. His stories have also appeared in several other zines, including the most recent issue of Slush Pile, published by a raucous group of rabble-rousers known as the Underground Literary Alliance.
Founded three years ago by a half-dozen disgruntled zine editors and writers, the ULA has as its mission the overthrow of the "literary establishment," which the group's members see as irredeemably elitist, nepotistic, corrupt, and pretentious. They've staged panel discussions and crashed readings to rail loud and furiously against perceived injustices like the awarding of a $35,000 Guggenheim grant to independently wealthy author Rick Moody.
The group has stalked other literary big game like George Plimpton and Dave Eggers. In 2001 it launched a bitter protest after the Firecracker Alternative Book Awards dubbed McSweeney's the best zine of the year. (The journal's polished content and swank production values, they argued, should have taken it out of contention.) In February ULA founders Karl "King" Wenclas and Michael Jackman landed on Page Six of the New York Post after getting in a scuffle with Open City editor Tom Beller outside the Manhattan bookstore Housing Works. Last week Wenclas wound up on Page Six again after he incited a heated online debate over a dismissive article about the ULA that ran in last month's issue of the Believer, the new literary magazine published by McSweeney's. The piece referred to the ULA's tactics as, among other things, "thuggish, cruel, and petty," not to mention Stalinist.
"While the ULA has 25 members," says Wenclas, "there are many more writers who are attracted to the ULA, who agree with most of our ideas--as Cullen certainly does--but who for various reasons don't become members, mainly a hesitance at being associated with our high jinks." When news of Carter's accident hit the Web, Wenclas and his cohorts were some of the first to respond. "What terrible news," wrote ULA webmaster Jeff Potter. "Let's give him what we've got. They say it works."
Wenclas credits Anderson with the idea of throwing a reading to benefit Carter and his family, but Anderson demurs. "The two of us discussed Cullen's accident via e-mail. I knew that the merest hint of a benefit reading to him and, like Captain Picard, he would 'make it so.'" Plus, she notes, a third writer, Frank Marcopolos (who's published Carter's fiction in his zine the Whirligig), floated the suggestion of a benefit on alt.zines the day after Anderson posted the bad news. "Ideas are like rain," she says, "and when they fall, they fall indiscriminately."
The "Summer Extravaganza Benefit for Cullen Carter" takes place Sunday, August 3, at 8 PM at the Barrel Cafe, 820 W. Jackson. The lineup includes Wenclas (who'll also emcee), Marcopolos, Jackman, actress Leah Smith, comedian Wred Fright, and local writers Emerson Dameron, Todd Dills, and Reader contributor Ann Sterzinger, who'll all read from either their own work or Carter's. There'll also be a "poetry read-off" between Michael "Mad Dog" Grover and a poet calling himself the "Masked Professor." Admission is $10; call 312-559-0400 or see www.literaryrevolution.com for more information.