In a previous post I introduced Harry Stephen Keeler, a true writer’s writer: an author of detective and adventure novels who violates every single rule of good writing ever set down. Keeler is, in my earlier words, a man with “an absolutely stupendous imagination coupled to a total lack of judgment.” But I am now in a better position to describe his work, having recently finished my first Keeler novel, Stand By–London Calling!
The book is one of the last published works of Keeler’s career, dating from 1953, after his American press had dropped him for more marketable writers. In appreciation to his London publisher, Ward Lock & Co., for continuing to back him, Keeler wrote this book as a fond tribute to the U.K. with a special plot twist requiring several chapters set in London, the “Chicago of the East.” In return, Ward Lock & Co. dropped Keeler from their roster.
Reading the novel, it’s not hard to see why this work sealed his fate. After an initial exuberantly weird handful of chapters focusing on a crusty old circus master with a diorama of a fish being executed, the feverish descriptions, coiled sentences, and absurd rhetorical flourishes which make Keeler unforgettable fade out, the author instead charging hard across 190 pages of dry landscape trying to get all his plot squeezed in. Weirdly, the plot never really builds to anything; the events, rather than forming an arc, are just a series of things happening.
To summarize: an aging circus master named Angus MacWhorter (so old he looks like an “ancient reptile”) receives an offer to sell a diorama in his circus for $1,000. He drives the price up to $3,000, even though it’s just a little box with a small fish being hanged and a tiny diorama crowd of humans watching the fish die on the scaffold. The description of the gruesome, seemingly pointless diorama is one of the highlights of the book.
Then, in an unrelated development, we discover that a brother and sister in the circus are madly in love with each other. The brother takes some “Hindu drugs” and has a dream that he was involved in a train wreck as a child, where he was separated from his real parents. If true, they’re not brother and sister and they can get married! So off the brother (named Pell Barneyfield) goes to find his birth certificate, because his birth certificate has a tiny baby footprint on it that will match his big adult footprint. At some point, it’s necessary for Pell to call London. I’ll be honest: I can’t remember why, except that he has some sort of zodiacal soul-mate whom he’s never met, and that some random servant woman in London knows the location of his birth certificate. He contacts the woman, but never the soul-mate.
Why is the soul-mate even in the story? I’m glad you asked! He is the subject of a story-within-a-novel, a longish chapter by Hazel Goodwin Keeler. That’s right: Harry’s wife. And the really wonderful discovery of Stand By–London Calling! is that Hazel Goodwin Keeler is just as bad a writer as her husband. We get some sort of preposterous business about young people and forbidden love and a car crash and before we know it, the zodiacal soul-mate guy has accidentally married a duchess in disguise! After the chapter ends, we never hear from them again. And I love the description of the car crash:
“And then the world exploded.”
That’s the sort of thing you read in Hardy Boys novels. “Joe’s world exploded… thousands of little stars danced in front of Frank’s eyes.” Except here it’s much more blunt and kind of violent. “And then the world exploded.” For a moment I thought we were going to be treated to some post-apocalyptic science fiction.
Anyway, Pell Barneyfield continues his daft quest to find his real birth certificate and match up the footprints to prove he can marry the girl. Meanwhile, the girl is getting desperate and accepts a marriage proposal from The Bad Guy, whose name is Steve “Golden-Tongued” Octigan. Steve Octigan sabotages the road Pell is supposed to take back, so he can marry the girl before she finds out she’s not Pell’s sister. The means of sabotage is an irate country bumpkin with a gun, who is prone to saying things like this: “Tarnation–hell! D’ya think ‘at we’uns air–d’y think ‘at w’en he comes to that thar fallened tree tronk, by then half-a-rolled ’round partly ‘crost th’ road–‘ith–‘ith a skinned saplin’ lyin’ keerless-like ‘longside, like could be used as a leever–an’ he climbs out to do a little leeverin’ o’ that fallened tree off fur ‘nough to git clearance to git past it–” and “Hell–f’ar!”
Luckily, Pell avoids the trap and any delirious dialogue with the country hick by crossing the river on an underwater bridge. Octigan exits the book with the following angry last lines: “You folks will always be able to tell your grandchildren ‘at you both once knew the Wickedest Man in the Universe – old Mr Devil himself!”
Old Mr Devil himself could probably conjure up a slightly more entertaining work than Stand By–London Calling!, which for all its inventive plot has some remarkably un-loony detective work and prosaic clues. Even the “reveal” of the secret meaning behind the fish being hanged is slightly boring. But the novel certainly has its pleasures, mainly in Keeler’s uniquely tortured prose. Consider this description of an unlikely event, which is the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter: “Is the identical chance that a snowball, cooked in a nice hot oven, has of coming out browned on one side–and oozing delicious juice on the other. Figure it out yourself!”
Yes, Keeler wants us to figure it out ourselves. I was speechless.
I’ve recently finished my second Keeler novel, and it was far more amusing. Indeed, I frequently broke out into the kind of really painful silent laughter you have when you’re in a library and don’t want to disturb the people around you. Write-up coming soon. Here’s a teaser:
“It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.”