Author Picks
Author Picks

 

Are you new to the amazing world of Harry Stephen Keeler? Here, Richard Polt, professor and editor of Keeler News, and author Ed Park introduce a selection of notable Keeler novels. All can be found in the Center for Fiction’s collection. And for more information on HSK, our librarian Jon Michaud discusses Keeler's legacy with Polt and Park in this month's Book Drop column

 


 

The Box from Japan (1932)

 

Weighing in at 312,348 words, this exhaustive and exhausting narrative set in 1942 is about 3D television, a canal across Nicaragua, the molecular structure of sugar, and “etheric stresses due to halfwave-length-dephased hightension pulsations from meshworks.” Among other things. RP

 


 

The Marceau Case and 

X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936)

 

Keeler’s ultimate experiment in form, this pair of “documented novels” tell the tale of the murder of André Marceau, who may or may not have been strangled by a helicopter-flying little person in the middle of his vast croquet lawn. Combining letters, photos (including one of HSK himself), cartoons, Bible verses, astronomical charts, and logorrheic newspaper stories, the novels present a 3-dimensional solution in the first volume and a 4-dimensional one in the second. RP

 


 

The Mysterious Mr. I (1938) and The Chameleon (1939)

 

This two-volume set takes the concept of an unreliable narrator to comic extremes. The enigmatic storyteller adopts no fewer than 50 identities in his travels through Chicago, including that of a philosophy professor who proposes a new solution to the famous Marceau case. RP

 


 

Finger! Finger! (1938)

 

When our hero inadvertently switches overcoats with a stranger and finds a human finger in a pocket, he is plunged into a tiramisù of telegrams, newspaper stories, endless phone calls, hieroglyphics, and a 67-page deathbed confession. Notable for the opening chapter, written by Harry’s wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler, as a parody of her husband’s style. RP

 


 

The Case of the Ivory Arrow (1945)

 

Keeler’s 1917 story “Misled in Milwaukee” eventually morphed into this surreal novel in which bumpkin Ezra Jenkins searches for his brother, X-Y-Z Jenkins, in the eerie metropolis of Wiscon City, encountering characters such as African-American poet Olivia Debrevois and an entity known as Life’s Triple Enigma. RP

 


 

The Voice of Seven Sparrows (1924)

 

HSK’s first published novel, atypically beginning in Brooklyn and ending in New Orleans. The ornate plotting is already in place; it’s this book that he diagrams for his article on “webwork” for Author & Journalist magazine. Given the importance of certain Chinese characters in the book, he chooses to begin his diagram 500 years in the past, with “Confucius” as a strand. EP

 


 

The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (1934)

 

This is a literal head trip, involving the peregrinations across Chicago of a skull in a bag. Whose brain did the cranium once encase? Why is it stuffed with what appear to be scraps of poetry? Why is the damn bag so ridiculously complex? A fever dream told by a confectioner, this is irresistible stuff: the best single volume introduction to Keeler’s world. EP

 


 

The Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb (1940), Cleopatra’s Tears (1940), The Bottle With the Green Wax Seal (1942)

 

Informally known as the “Big River” trilogy, each book in this sequence begins with a distinct plot that eventually funnels into a showdown featuring a big contribution from Mother Nature. An island is on the verge of being overrun by deadly floodwaters. Four men are there—but only three lifejackets. One of them is a vicious criminal. Each book is a full-fledged mystery, but only the intrepid reader who can brave a 900-page torrent of weird dialect and mariachi costumes will survive to see the beauty of the whole construction. Gloriously pointless. EP

 


 

Y. Cheung, Business Detective (1939)

 

My favorite Asian-American novel by a non-Asian-American might well be this neglected masterpiece, in which the titular sleuth, born and raised in Indiana, takes on a corporate espionage case and a maddening literary mystery all at once. While the book is full of Keeler’s trademark loopiness, its hero is a melancholy fellow—brilliant, assimilated, yet unable to win recognition in a white-dominated country. Keeler was fascinated by all things Chinese; Chinese characters, books, and artifacts play significant roles throughout his work. But though he sometimes attempted to turn the racism of the period on its head, he didn’t always escape it. Here, he replaces insensitivity with a relentless accounting of just how slim the odds of success were for a person of color in a racist society. As if that weren’t timely enough—it’s also the ne plus ultra of leak narratives! EP

 


 

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Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) was born and raised in Chicago. He wrote more than seventy novels characterized by improbable coincidences, unlikely characters, and convoluted plots. This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death.


Ed Park is a novelist and editor in New York. He will be leading one of the discussions of the Knausgaard reading group this spring at the Center for Fiction.


Richard Polt is a professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, editor of Keeler News, and author of The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century.

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