Literary Death Match tour makes stop at sold-out Austin show

Adrian Todd Zuniga started Literary Death Match (LDM) because he wanted to mix a bunch of people together—actors, writers and musicians in one room.

Since its inception in 2006, LDM has grown into an internationally touring show featuring celebrity judges such as Michael C. Hall and B.J. Novak. The premise is simple: four authors read up to seven minutes of their personal prose and are critiqued by three judges based on literary merit, performance and intangibles. The two finalists compete in a literary-tinged comical climax. Part stand-up, serious and outlandish, the show is as eclectic as its audience and perfect for cultural omnivores.

LDM returned to the Alamo Ritz on April 3 for a sold out show. Charismatic founder and MC Adrian Zuniga pitted Jennifer duBois, a Texas State University professor and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum, against Elizabeth McCracken, a five-time author and University of Texas at Austin MFA resident faculty.

DuBois read from her award-winning novel “Cartwheel” and while her prose was haunting, nerves bested her delivery and she failed to outdo McCracken, who read from her new essay “The Container and the Thing Contained.” McCracken’s essay was a wry reflection on her father’s passing. Judges Sarah Bird and Bob Schneider lauded both participants’ reading. However, resident celebrity and intangibles judge Owen Egerton lacked relevant criticism. Appearing slightly coked out, he compared duBois’ work to porn (she was not amused) and confessed he did not listen to McCracken, but her style was nice.

Round two featured Manuel Gonzales, executive director of Bat Cave, versus Neal Pollock, three time Jeopardy champion and former Daily Show guest. Gonzales read an excerpt from his short story “Escape from the Mall,” a slightly tired plot line about zombies complete with gore, puns and a sprinkling of existential musings. Pollack offered a reading from his truly original new novel “Repeat” where a man is forced to live his life in a reincarnated state a la Groundhog Day/Benjamin Button-style. The specific scene he read was told from the point of view of a cognizant 40-year-old baby. It was hysterical. Gonzales’ admirable performance was no match for Pollack’s comedic prose, and Pollack advanced to the final round.

Zuniga entertained the crowd with interactive tongue-in-cheek stand-up while the stage was set for the final round. McCracken and Pollack were joined by two audience volunteers in the Cyrillic-Off finale. The contestants had to ring a bell and decode the Pulitzer Prize winning author’s name from Cyrillic to English. Audience participation was encouraged. It was a close race with Pollack barely etching out McCracken to win the LDM medal.

Despite heavy crowd contention, McCracken conceded gracefully even though she did ring the bell first. The evening was wildly entertaining, especially for only $12, and even slightly educational. The handful of adolescent attendees hopefully means reading is cool again. Sadly, LDM continues their tour without immediate plans to return to Texas. You can track their tour dates and watch old episodes online via their website