Guy Choate’s Debut Book Launches with Art Exhibition by Evan Hallmark
Guy Choate is known by a band of enthusiastic followers for his candid, funny nonfiction that he reads at monthly installments of the Argenta Reading Series. This Friday, Choate will celebrate his debut book launch at the Bookstore at Library Square with an exhibition of the book’s artwork by Evan Hallmark and a book signing. Guests are invited to enjoy the party atmosphere of Second Friday Art Night at the free event, which will offer wine, beer, snacks, and a reading of new material by Choate.
Choate’s work, titled Gas! Gas! Gas!, focuses on an episode from his basic training as an 18-year-old Army private. Infused with the author’s characteristic blend of satire, humor, and tenderness, the piece is enhanced by the comic brutality of Hallmark’s drawing style.
The project was inspired by repeated requests from Choate’s listeners at his public readings for a book of his collected work. “I had worked on a bigger project for a while with the intent of publishing it,” Choate said. “But I put it aside because I didn’t want to publish a full collection yet. I will publish one in the future when I have more pieces centered around a specific theme. For now, I wanted to publish just one piece as kind of a calling card for my work. But I knew I couldn’t publish just one essay by itself, so I started considering an illustrated format.”
Not being an artist himself, Choate thought first of collaborating with Evan Hallmark, who also grew up in Choate’s small hometown of Beebe, Arkansas.
“Evan is a very talented artist who studied art at the University of Arkansas,” Choate said. “I had previously commissioned a piece from him for my wife because he does interesting work featuring athletes, and I thought his style would work well for this piece.”
Choate chose this essay for his first publication because it shows formative influences on his development as a writer, in addition to its wider resonances on masculine identity, physical aggression, and sexism.
“I realized I was a writer—or I became a writer—during basic training, because all I wanted to do was write letters to my mom. I think I saw it as a way of documenting what was happening, which has since become my thing,” Choate said, referring to his current autobiographical work that often becomes uproariously funny because of its smallest details. “I carried notebook paper in my breast pocket and wrote on the butt of my M-16 to send letters home to my mom. I knew that she loved it because she would write back immediately, and we had a great dialogue going on. It got to the point where even when I had the rare opportunity to make a phone call home, I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want to mess up the flow of the narrative I had been developing, if all of a sudden—spoiler alert!—I’m about to tell you everything that’s in the letter you’re about to get.”
In addition, the piece shows the importance of Choate’s mother in his life.
“I’m a mama’s boy,” Choate admitted with a smile. “She has been the most supportive mother I could ever want. So that essay is close to my heart because of the way it centers on that relationship and ends with the letter home. When my mother saw the first improvised version of the book with its artwork, all taped together and lying on the counter, she picked it up to read it. And even though she was already familiar with the essay, she started crying when she saw the last panels. That’s when I realized how powerful these images were.”
Artist Evan Hallmark appreciated the opportunity to meld his own storytelling ability with Choate’s narrative.
“Visual storytelling has always been a passion of mine,” Hallmark said. “As a cartoonist I have to adjust to the writer and story. Gas! Gas! Gas! was fun because it’s a very emotional story but there’s also a lot of humor in there. I wanted to find that balance with drawings that were intense but remained loose.”
Hallmark is more humble about his own artwork than it deserves, given the power of the illustrations in the published work. “Guy’s writing style is very descriptive and flows easily,” he said. “Sometimes the art needs to be the foundation, but in this case I just wanted to add a pop of color. Like a nice rug or plant or something.” Despite his dry humor, even the quickest look at his illustrations reveals the skill and talent required to blend humor with darker strokes, as Hallmark does so adeptly in Gas! Gas! Gas!
Choate was clearly an unusual recruit to the ranks of Army privates, given his desire to write constantly during basic training. But contrary to stereotypes about Army life, he was not singled out for harsh treatment because of his more reflective personality: all recruits suffered under the same trials inflicted by their bullying young drill sergeant.
“That drill sergeant was 24, but he looked like a grown man to me because I was only 18. He was a physical specimen to be reckoned with—he could run forever. And he hated everybody and he wanted to be the meanest drill sergeant that there was,” Choate said, laughing. “Oh, everyone was catching indiscriminate hell!”
To read more colorful memories of army life and get your signed copy of the book, join Choate and Hallmark at the opening this Friday, March 13 from 5-8 pm at the Boookstore at Library Square, located in the River Market District of downtown Little Rock.
Gas! Gas! Gas! is the first publication by Runaway Trolley Press, a new small press founded by Guy Choate and Derek Berry.
Evan Hallmark’s illustrations have found a home on the walls of art galleries and webpages alike. Formally educated at the University of Arkansas, he now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he applies his whimsical and gritty cartoonist style to characters that run the gamut from professional athletes to television celebrities, and now to American soldiers.
Guy Choate has published essays in War, Literature, & the Arts, The Journal, Louisville Review, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, and other forums. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and his BA in Rhetoric & Writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He served in the Army Reserve as a public affairs specialist for six years, during which time he deployed to Bosnia as a NATO peacekeeper. He founded the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife and son. Find him online at guychoate.com.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott