After careful consideration of the matter, I decided to join him.

You may have noticed the book on the right column of this site with the cryptic cover page. I picked it up a few weeks ago, and it’s a really fun, easy read, one of those rare books I ration out to myself in small chunks because I don’t want it to end too soon. It’s a British book called “Join Me” that’s just been released in America. The author is Danny Wallace, who could most accurately be described with whatever the British word for “slacker” is. His idea of fun is to phone a newspaper and post an advert that says “Join Me, send one passport sized photo to…” and then his address, just to see what happens.

The short version of what happened is that he started a cult that now numbers in the thousands. The long version is that only one person responded to his ad, so he started marketing “Join Me” more aggressively — with subsequent ads, posters, a website, and yes, even — cringe — spam. All of this in the cause of, well, nothing. There’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Danny Wallace planted his flag right on top of it.

It seems like most of the people who joined, at least from that initial, enigmatic awareness campaign, did so just to show they were in on the joke. But some people expected something more, so in fear of losing his “followers”, Wallace set them on a mission: do a good deed every Friday. Now he had something to document, something to keep “Join Me” alive and, least importantly it would seem, something to be proud of. Lots of strangers were doing lots of good deeds (well, if you consider buying Tori Spelling some muffin cups anonymously off her wedding registry a good deed), and he was raking in the credit. He even scored a publishing deal for the story.

So far so good. I mean, Wallace facetiously compares himself to Jesus, but I think he sells himself short. This guy’s a slacker god. I can’t think of another person who’s gained so many followers by doing so little.

For the joinees, the only reward was karma, and, if they were lucky, a beer courtesy of The Leader. Wallace describes with great charm how when he’d meet up with his joinees, he’d buy them all a pint, from his first joinee in London to a massive crowd of Belgians who responded to his appearance on a Flemish talk show.

Wallace is currently on a book tour of America, and he’s been chronicling his experience in an online tour diary. Judging by his entries, America is just like the rest of the world; bowled over by Danny Wallace’s charm, strangers at his book signings happily proffer their passport photos and are rewarded with a getting-to-know-you pint at a local bar afterwards. I rarely go to book signings, but this was one I didn’t want to miss. I wanted to meet Danny Wallace, and I wanted to Join Him and share in the adventures that were sure to follow.

So on Friday, I headed way the hell up to Pasadena with a passport photo in my pocket. There were about 25 people in attendance, and the most excited by far were the store employees standing up in the back. Most of the other people seemed like they had just walked in cold because they had nothing better to do or because they saw the imposing, enigmatic cardboard standee in the lobby and were curious. “We on the staff really love this book, and we’re really going to try to push it this year,” the woman who did the introduction said.

And then Danny Wallace took to the podium. He looked just like he looked on the book cover, only a bit taller, and he sounded just like I would’ve expected him to sound, soft-spoken but snarky in that particularly British way. He read the first few pages from the book, then told a few of the more delightful anecdotes from the next 300 pages. He was witty and charming, and we all laughed a lot. Hooray for Danny Wallace! Hooray for joining! Hooray for everything! Then, with the crowd in the palm of his hands, he offered to take questions.


Uncomfortable silence.

Come on, people! You want him to take us all out for a beer, don’t you? Let’s wow him with our fondness for his work!

Finally, one of the gray-haired women in the front row raised her hand. “What are your parents like?” she asked. Clearly, she was curious about what kind of background produced this strange young Englishman in front of her. He answered her question with typical good humour, proving he was just as good off-the-cuff as he was with his prepared material. Still, the audience was very shy about asking questions, so I decided that, as someone who had actually read and enjoyed the book, I should probably contribute something.

Realizing it was Friday, a “Good Friday” in the terminology of Join Me, I knew exactly what to ask. “Did you do your good deed today?”

Now, for someone who only jokingly claims to being a cult leader, he looked an awful lot as though I had just asked him why the spaceship hadn’t come yet to take him away to Blisstonia*. “Well…,” he stammered. “I bought a woman a coffee. In fact, it was that woman sitting next to you.” I looked beside me, and a woman held up her coffee as evidence. But The Leader seemed to think I wouldn’t find that answer satisfactory. Maybe she was his publicist or something. “I’ll do another one later, if you want to stick around. I’ll go up to someone and buy their book for them. Or something.” I thought I’d tossed him a softball, but he was being awfully defensive.

He moved on to the next question. A long-haired man in the row in front of me raised his hand, and with a joyful cackle in his voice asked the question that was surely on the mind of anyone who’d read the book: “So, are you going to take us all out for a beer?”

But again, our leader was flustered. “Well, I’ll tell you what. How much does a beer cost in America?” It seemed an odd question for someone who’d already visited half a dozen cities, and bought plenty of beers for plenty of joinees, at least according to his blog.

“About three to five dollars.”

“Okay, we’ll say four dollars. Why don’t you all close your eyes for twenty minutes, and I’ll hide four dollars in a book somewhere in this store. Whoever finds it can have a beer on me.”

Ha, ha. Very funny. But really… where are our beers?

Next question.

Well, okay, so he doesn’t want to hit the town and buy beers for a bunch of strangers. Totally understandable… except of course for the fact that that’s what he did all through the book and at the previous cities on his U.S. book tour. And the way he responded by going right off the far end of the sarcasm-meter was a bit condescending, as if to say, No of course I’m not going to buy you a beer. What are you thinking, you stupid American wanker? You can’t believe everything you read in a bloody book!

What was wrong? Didn’t The Leader like LA? Okay, so we were no Wisconsin. He’d written gleefully about the overwhelming response he’d received in Wisconsin, so I’m sure a couple of old ladies, me, the long haired guy, the coffee lady and 20 other people in Pasadena couldn’t quite compete with that.

But I had an ace up my sleeve, in the form of a passport photo in my pocket. I was sure that becoming an official joinee would be a great way to win him over.

I waited patiently until the end of the Q&A, then got in the queue for my autograph. I even bought another copy of the book to send to my friend Janice, who I know would appreciate the humour. I watched as one person after another got an autograph and said a few kind words. About eight people went up before me, but not a single photo was exchanged. At last, it was my turn. “I’m ready to join!” I said as I slapped my picture down proudly in front of The Leader.

Danny thanked me and shook my hand to welcome me to Join Me. Then he picked up my photo. “I’m going to put this right… er…”. He searched around for somewhere to put it. Huh? He didn’t carry his shoebox of Join Me members around with him? He didn’t have somewhere special to file all the photos of new joinees he was collecting on his tour? All the joinees whose photos he talked so proudly about all through his book and all through his tour diary? It was as if he never expected to get a photo at all! “… er… here!” He slipped the photo inside his own dog-eared copy of “Join Me” and then got onto the business of signing my book.

Needless to say, the process of joining was all a bit disillusioning. I wondered how Danny would recount his LA visit in his blog. Maybe he’d admit to being disappointed at the turnout, and he’d lament that his publisher booked him in stodgy old Pasadena instead of somewhere hip like Westwood or WeHo. “Except for this one nerdy chap with a funny voice who wanted to know what my good deed that day had been and another guy with long hair, nobody seemed to have read the book. I was so disappointed, I couldn’t even get up the energy to take the attendees out for a pint afterward,” he’d confess, regretfully, of this first major setback in his plan to spread Join Me to the USA.

So I checked out the latest page in the online journal with some curiosity. “Maybe I spoke too soon about Wisconsin being the official Join Me state,” it said. “Californians seem rather into the Karma Army, too.” Well, okay. It was fair to say that people enjoyed the reading. But then he went on: “The reading was a blast – especially when so many people presented me with their passport photos afterwards.” Huh? Did I qualify as “so many people”? Did five hundred people rush into the store after I left? Even the long-haired guy took off without a signature.

He then talked about being taken out afterward to a bar with live mariachi music. And there, alongside the diary entry, was a picture of him at the mariachi bar, the mariachi bar none of us were invited to! He didn’t say who took him to this bar (I have a sneaking suspicion it was that woman with the coffee), but if he was going, why didn’t he invite his joinees like he always did?

And then I noticed something very telling about that photo. Other than the mariachi band he’s talking about, there’s nobody in it but him.

Despite everything, I still highly recommend “Join Me”, a very funny, well-written and utterly unique book.

Look for it in the fiction section.

* Regretful Simpsons reference

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