Could any pleasure be more guilty than sitting around a saloon with good company, drinking up the news -- and booze -- of the day? That's what a group of Denver journalists and ad men (and they were almost invariably men) did back in the '50s and '60s, when the self- proclaimed Evil Companions would meet at the now-defunct Auditorium Hotel bar and waste away the afternoon. The Rocky Mountain Herald proclaimed it a "most satisfactory club," since it had no officers and no dues, and membership was by osmosis -- a very liquid process.
"Once in a while they'd talk about literature, but their primary activity was eating, drinking and having a good time," recounts developer Dana Crawford, who joined with the Tattered Cover Book Store's Joyce Meskis and Colorado State University English professor David Milofsky to resurrect the club -- or its memory anyway -- in 1992. "We thought that there should be at least one literary event in town," Crawford explains. "Just the sound of being an Evil Companion seemed quite attractive. And the Evil Companions still cling to the ancient and outmoded philosophy of live and let live, resolutely opposing anybody who's against anything."
But just as resolutely, these modern-day Evil Companions support good books, and so they created the Evil Companions Literary Award that's presented annually to a writer whose work embodies the spirit of the West. Past winners include Coloradans Joanne Greenberg and Kent Haruf, as well as Richard Ford and Annie Proulx; this year's winner -- the group's twelfth -- is Sandra Cisneros, the award-winning author of The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek.
The Evil Companions chose Cisneros before her Caramelo-- the book the author says she "loves best, perhaps because it gave me so much trouble" -- was chosen for the 2005 incarnation of One Book, One Denver. That was "serendipity," Crawford says.
As part of the One Book, One Denver program, Cisneros will read from Carameloat the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek at noon Monday, April 4 (for information, call 303-322-7727); she'll discuss the book at North High School at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7. And in between, on Wednesday, April 6, she'll become an official Evil Companion. The festivities begin at the Oxford Hotel at 6 p.m. with cocktails (consider the club's origins) and continue through a presentation by Cisneros. Tickets are $50, with proceeds going to the Denver Public Library; bring ten guests and you "become an official 21st-century Evil Companion."
"I want my book to make people laugh, cry and, most important, make them think and come away changed after reading it. The right story can nourish and feed people's spirits, can't it? Then a book will have done its work," Cisneros says in a letter thanking Denver for choosing Caramelo. "I know we are living in difficult times, but I continue to believe in the power of a story to create positive change in the world. Maybe I am naive, but I have always believed there is as much good in the world as evil -- well, maybe just a little more good than evil."
And then, of course, some evil can be very, very good. There's actually one pleasure more guilty even than chatting the afternoon away with Evil Companions, and that's slipping into a great book. A book that makes you forget about what else you are supposed to do that day, that night, that week. Because you simply can't leave Lala, the young star of Caramelo, and her family right here:
Father looks at his mother. And then at our mother. The mob around us circles tighter. Father raises his head skyward as if looking for a sign from heaven. The stars rattling like a drumroll.
Then Father does something he's never done in his life. Not before, nor since....