Reading Keeler: I, Chameleon

It’s been a long time since I last updated my Reading Keeler series. Quick refresher: Harry Stephen Keeler is one of the most bizarre writers of all time, a pulp thriller author whose books drive past odd, and past bad, and past perverse, into a land where no adjective can describe them. I’ve previously described him has having “a stupendous imagination and a total lack of good judgment.” Others have described him as the “Ed Wood/Tommy Wiseau of world literature” or “the worst writer ever.” Which is unfair: there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and Harry Stephen Keeler is sprawled across it like a big weird starfish.

So this time around the book is a two-volume epic called I, Chameleon.

The Chameleon

Original 1937 book cover to Part II of the epic

I, Chameleon is not for the beginner, or for the faint of heart. It is, frankly, bewildering. I can’t pretend to understand many of the subplot details, in particular a baffling murder mystery case in which the victim was actually somebody else, and the murderer pretended he murdered the wrong man, or something. Who knows?

The concept is a daring experiment: our narrator pretends to be somebody he’s not. In every chapter. And it’s always somebody different. The narrator is a chameleon, working through over 30 fake identities in 306 pages. What’s especially baffling is he often tells his victims. At the end of the chapter, he’ll say something like, “By the way, my name’s not really McAllister Y. Thane! I made that up! Haha!” and then just leave.

The narrator is pathologically obsessed with his fakery. At one point, he stumbles on an opportunity to steal a famous philosophy professor’s identity. So he goes to a fictional version of the University of Chicago and delivers a whole philosophy lecture to the students. Wait, that doesn’t make clear just how ridiculous this is. He takes a couple hours to give a philosophy lecture disguised as a professor, while in a race against time to turn in a criminal by midnight in exchange for a cash reward.

Yeah. The plot is this: our lying friend met a dude named Sandringham. Later he found out that Sandringham was a homicidal maniac, escaped from an insane asylum, with a $100,000 reward on his head. (In today’s money, $1.6M.) But the reward was expiring that very night!–because Sandringham was presumed dead! So the chameleon narrator must use his 30 identities to track down Sandringham and lure him back to the nuthouse.

It is in that framework that the narrator takes time off to teach a philosophy class. You have to admire his confidence. He also spends a good amount of time getting a doctor to demonstrate an operation, for wholly unrelated reasons. He also causes that same doctor to commit suicide. And causes another guy to commit suicide. And kisses a nun. And blows up a safe. And writes a humor column for the local magazine.

It’s a strange book.

Because the plot leaves you in a perpetual state of bewilderment, this is not anywhere near top-shelf Keeler. Bold, yes. Silly, yes. But it lacks the nutty appeal and easy merriment of some of the other books.

There are still interesting things. You’ll learn interesting 1930s slang words, like this list of slang for “money”: “kale, scratch, mazuma or dough.” Kale? And there’s this classic line: “I don’t need to read it! It’s graven in neatly etched letters of immortal fire upon my quivering cerebellum.” My favorite moments were when our dear author turns self-aware: at one point, as he often does in his books, he has a character say that the events unfolding are “like a dime-store novel.” Plus: “It was plain, now, that mystery-novelists were painstaking artists after all–and looked up their stuff most accurately. If only, I reflected ironically, the readers thereof knew that what they were reading was, in most instances, fact–and not fiction!”

Sure. We believe you, Harry.

I, Chameleon may not be one of the medal-winners, but I’m going to keep reading Keeler’s wacky, woeful, wonderful novels–and paying for them with my hard-earned kale.


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