The Voltaic Yoo-Hoo Acid Test

A half-forgotten mystery writer's cranium-busting novel tantalizes and antagonizes

Pixilation enlivens and estranges the dialogue—vide this exchange between the hero, recently beaned from behind, and some Irish cops:

"The minute I went up the steps of No. 1870, and tried to grope around in the vestibule for a push button, the house fell on my head and I traveled through space with the square root of minus one—" "What's that?"

"That's the speed of light, according to Einstein," said the other of the plainclothesmen. "He's persiflageous, Sarge!"

Harry Stephen Keeler: Explicitly absurd
photo: Courtesy The Harry Stephen Keeler Society
Harry Stephen Keeler: Explicitly absurd


See also:
  • Web Pages
    . . . How H.S. Keeler Wrote Certain of His Books
  • The Connections
    Harry Stephen Keeler's Y. Cheung, Business Detective
  • Subtext
    Harry Stephen Keeler's The Peacock Fan

    by Ed Park
  • In the manner of the broken clock that's correct twice a day, Keeler will here and there fashion a passage, or merely an aperçu, that is actually, conventionally good. Like the narrator's sketch of a suburban housing development, "with small one-story bungalows laid around within it, and little toy garages with red-tiled roofs in back of each. A single combined driveway and entrance for all the natives to get in. Or to get out." Or his coining of piquant names for imaginary periodicals, such as Hearstmopolitan and Literary Regurgitation. Or his suggestion to a lam-considering criminal that "Canada is as much of a refuge for you as—as a Wisconsin lumber camp is for a lost virgin."

    In life and death, Keeler has borne his critics' attacks—the latest being a piece in the December 21 New York Sun by Mysterious Bookshop owner Otto Penzler that is less a hatchet job than a series of shallow pinpricks. ("Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health," Penzler writes, in what is ostensibly a review of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull but overall evidences greater familiarity with the McSweeney's press release than with the novel itself.) Indeed, there are sound reasons for disliking Keeler's work. But mediocrity is not among them. Unlike the cults around, say, Ed Wood or Eisenhower-era lounge music—the fetishizing of dullness, the caressing of a void—Keeler's is a cult of the wildly overcreative, the sincerely, bountifully bizarre.

    In the words of Skull's Teutonic neurosurgeon, "Life! What a tangle it is, isn't it! Gott! People—objects—all bound together—in all sorts of odd relationships!" That's Harry Stephen, whether you get him whole, halfway, or not at all. But for those willing to look past the racism—a challenge—Keeler is a home-brewed hallucinogen, the literary equivalent of the quackish medical compounds and energy elixirs once peddled by tent and wagon in those dark decades before the all-night infomercial. He had a bent of brain and twist of pen that make him an acquired but irreplaceable taste—not Electric Kool-Aid, but its ancestral counterpart, its Depression-bred grandfather: Voltaic Yoo-Hoo, perhaps.

    Devin McKinney, author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard), writes a music column for The American Prospect online (

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