I am absolutely delighted by the novel I've just finished reading,
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull by Harry Stephen Keeler. I was about 98% sure I was going to love it--what's not to love about a book that comes with enthusiastic recommendations from Neil Gaiman, Ed Park (Ed's a passionate Keeler devotee, here's his post-Katrina NOLA/Keeler post at the Dizzies) and Paul Collins?
Mr. Collins is the proprietor of The Collins Library, which has brought the novel back into print; he clearly has an obsession with skulls, he is also the author of the excellently bone-laden The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (here's my review of it for the Voice, it's also a great read).
And I loved The Riddle of the Traveling Skull! What it really comes down to is the style, the sense of language here is amazing and there's a kind of playful density of references and ideas and words that makes it extremely enjoyable reading, barely dated at all.
There’s a lot of the weird race stuff that you get in American fiction from the 1930s, yes, and yet the potential offensiveness of the racial stereotyping is for me defused by the sheer dementedness of Keeler’s imagination (so that, for instance, the “moron” negro Sandy MacDougall—and the narrator is quite attentive to the bizarre aspects of this terminology—who works as a servant in the narrator’s boarding house also happens to be the winner of “the $1000 jig-saw contest at the Coliseum, putting together a 5000-piece jig-saw puzzle in eight hours forty-one minutes and sixteen seconds quicker time than the nearest of forty-one other contestants” and is thus conveniently able to piece together the scraps of typing paper the narrator finds wadded up inside the Traveling Skull of the title, providing an invaluable clue).
The book’s written in superb first-person narration, this voice is unbeatably good—we’ve got great phrases (“two shakes of a lamblet’s tail,” “24-carat thoroughbred”) and also pungent and funny one-liners (and a remarkably appealing use of the dash to signal thinking, I'm fond of dashes myself and was making particular mental notes as to how Keeler uses them):
Canada is as much of a refuge for you as—as a Wisconsin lumber camp is for a lost virgin.
My forehead was so corrugated, as I could sense by feeling alone, that an Eskimo’s fur coat, sprinkled with nothing but Lux, could have been washed on it.
Either as a detective I was a good sofa-pillow crocheter, or else I was playing in the identical luck of the piccolo player when the eccentric millionaire filled up the instruments of each member of the German band with $5 gold pieces.
But it’s in the crazed paragraph-length units that Keeler really gets going. Check these two examples out (I especially like the second one because of the medical stuff, but you can see the distinctive qualities of his verbal imagination):
“Well, you see, Clay, the rifle!—I shot him with—it was one of twelve special rifles that had been turned out by the Cormington Arms Company of Cormington, Connecticut, in commemoration of the production of their millionth firearm. And all of which were given—not sold—to friends of the president. Their barrels were made of steel fabricated from the very cannon that had fired the last charge of powder at Vicksburg. The stocks were hewed from a piece of wood from the bow of Commodore Perry’s flagship on his first trip to Japan. The time he opened Japan to the world. The front sights—what you call, Clay, the ‘bead’—were cut from the bone penholder of Edward Rutledge, the Charleston, South Carolina, lawyer who was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence—and were from the identical pen that had signed that paper. The pen, it seems, had gotten accidentally broken up in some Southern museum—and the Cormington Arms Company had gotten one of the slivers from which to cut these beads.”
“The head—the last of him—as was shown by the notations on the back of the ticket, had been all through the works. The studes in opthalmology had chopped his inferior oblique eye-muscles in two—and pulled his eyeballs partway out, and stitched his superior recti muscles into new places outward on his eyeballs—for cyclophoria. His neck—what there was of it—had been all opened up in goiter excision practice. Some student in the rhinology department had taken out the turbinates in his nose—and the whole rhinology department, judging from the notes, had taken turns finding and irrigating his sphenoid sinuses—the most difficult sinuses in the human head to reach. Or to treat. Studes in the ear department had operated on his ear-drums, and practised sounding his eustachian tubes through his nose. In the surgical-neurology, they had severed most of his facial nerves for tri-facial neuralgia the poor Wyomingite never had had, and never would have: Oh, he’d gone through the works all right. All except brain surgery. He’d escaped that somehow. And he nearly escaped me, too. For when I got around to getting him for myself, the old porter in the cellar was just swinging him, black hair and all, in a shovel, into the crematory. And he cost me all of two shillings!”
Goiter excision practice—isn’t that an amazing phrase?
And my favorite sentence, which makes ABSOLUTELY no sense out of context and barely more in situ, but just strikes me as utterly charming in any case:
I held up that costermonger dummy significantly.
I think there’s a long tradition in English of demented dandyish first-person writing like this: think of DeQuincey and Poe and the more baroque parts of Hawthorne (and the closest analog I could think of for the novel as a whole was the movie The Usual Suspects). Very, very smart and enjoyable novel.
Writing for the New York Sun, Otto Penzler recently called Keeler "the worst writer in the world":
Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail, you'd need to think about it.
This seems to me completely absurd. On the basis of this novel, at any rate, I'd say that Keeler's a great writer; a wayward and pretty whacked-out plotter, true, but some of us like that, and more importantly a fantastically good stylist with a sharp sense of humor as well as a taste for strangeness. (I ranted fairly recently about Mr. Penzler's tastes and why I do not share them.)
(If you're thinking about buying a copy of the novel, you should; if you're not sure and want to see what you think, you can read the first chapter here.)