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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Pastiche of Tales Which Have only One Thing in Common: How Uncommon They Are . . .

(Paper: 280 pages)
( Comet Press; May 1, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1936964376
ISBN-13: 978-1936964376
(Kindle edition: $4.99)

Once again a writer with a severely twisted sense of humor has me staying up late at night laughing my fool head off while everybody else in my house is sensibly trying to sleep.

The offender this time? David James Keaton, whose novel, The Last Projector, was released last week.

But I am not here to talk about The Last Projector. I will review that at another time. I am here to talk about a good lead-in to Keaton’s novel, his collection of weird but entertaining short stories, Fish Bites Cop!
David James Keaton (Courtesy of Amazon.com)

It’s not a new release. Fish was published in 2013, but I never ran across it until last week  when I won a paperback copy while participating in an impromptu quiz on Keaton’s Facebook page.

The anthology defies characterization: I couldn’t tell from its cover whether the tales the book  contains were going to be real life misadventures of cops, deputy sheriffs, scout troop leaders and other authority figures, or whether they were going to be fictionalized stories offered strictly for readers’ entertainment.

As it turned out, the latter is the case: the stories this antho contains include western yarns, crime tales, prison stories, horror, fantasy and a few that are kludged together from all these genres.

And the book’s subtitle is a little misleading; authority figures in some of these fables do, in fact, get a whupping worthy of a “Fight Club” pairing; but so do run-of-the-mill schmucks who lack the clout to flatten an √©clair.

The reader is the beneficiary in both cases.

From his prefatory remarks in the book’s introduction, you know you are in good hands. Keaton’s introductory “Open Letter to Assholes Allergic to Turn Signals,” based on an incident in which the writer was stopped by an underdressed traffic cop for shooting through a yellow light signal, explains that Keaton’s malefaction occurred because he was following a motorist who abruptly turned without signaling his intention.

“This is why I bombed through the red light, I tell [the cop]. Because you, in your piss-yellow 4X4, slowed down to turn. But I had no idea what you were doing and the light still had a splash of mustard on it, so just like you, I zipped on by.”

This leads to Keaton warning an imaginary K-9 unit dog to ignore “the signals flying off your master up there. That’s just sweat and confusion. Your master thinks everyone is guilty. He got a shitload of C’s in high school. So he’s wrong 80 percent of the time. Oh, yes he is! Who’s wrong 90 percent of the time? He is! You’re a good boy! Good boy!”

You get the drift? Keaton writes in a clever amalgam of third- and first-person stream of consciousness, tough guy patter, keenly observed detail and comments aimed directly at the reader. He ignores some of the ironclad rules of narrative writing – or bends them so wickedly that they no longer have the power to constrain his imagination.

And what an imagination. In “Bad Hand Acting,” he offers a vignette about a hospitalized man who has suffered a stroke after a run-in with a mob of bloodthirsty cops over some minor infraction. “Inside this room is Ron Flowers, soon to be ’39-year-old Ronald J. Flowers from Fort Knox, Kentucky,’ and all over the news for soaking up about 35 Taser barbs, a half-gallon of pepper-spray and a dozen blue-sleeved forearms sunk deep into his throat. . .”

“Why . . . would he resist [arrest] like that? Only a guilty man soaks up enough electricity to power a city block, pulling fishhook after fishhook of Taser wire from his torso, all while cuffing any cop that got too close with fists half the size of Thanksgiving turkeys. A man only does this when he knows justice has caught up with him.”

The story goes on to make it clear that Flowers has down nothing to earn this thrashing except fail to show sufficient deference to the battalion of sadistic blue jackets who have taken him down. And, more to the point, Keaton makes it clear that the entire incident was instigated by “two cops a little different than the rest. One big. One little. . . The janitor [who witnesses this scene] knows immediately, just by being alive on this planet past the age of 18, any clear physical distinction between partners means they will be the worst of all.”

A gift for hyperbole is not the only thing that makes these stories a rare treat. Keaton has a true instinct for the bizarre and sordid in his fiction. Take his story “Killing Coaches,” which details the activities of a serial murderer with an MO that sets him apart from the average sexual psychopath.  Or “Greenhorns,” which features a brand new take on the zombies that have taken the entertainment world by storm in recent years. Or “Three Ways Without Water,” which offers a parable about climate change that masquerades as an occult western tale.

Then there’s “Schr√∂dinger’s Rat,” set in a penitentiary that is utterly unlike any other. For one thing, it defies the laws of physics: there is a steady influx of new inmates – but none of the old ones ever seem to leave.

At least, not alive.

Some of Keaton’s stories are gruesome throwbacks to the kind of grisly literature that was the mainstay of the old Educational Comics titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror.  Others at least superficially seem to be conventional hardboiled crime yarns. A few are mash-ups of both narrative styles that seem to fit in their own peculiar niche.

All, however, share a core of grimly savage humor that puts them in a category all their own.

These stories are populated by strange people, black rats, white cats, clams, three foot giant mantises, and homicidal burning cars. The images remain in the reader’s brain like grimly threatening figures from a Hieronymus Bosch painting viewed in a fun-house mirror.

Don’t worry, though. Eventually they will fade.

Except for the ones that don’t. Those are the ones you are going to have to watch out for. . . 

Fish Bites Cop! is relentlessly entertaining. Get it and read it. It will do a good job of preparing you for The Last Projector.

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