Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days: Road Stories, by David James Keaton. Red Room Press, October 2018. 326 pages. $14.95, paper.
Never mind that his introduction of best car chase cinema (“Gasoline Dreams”) is worth the price of admission, David James Keaton is a bizarrely prolific writer who gets slept on beyond our genre congregation, and this is the world’s biggest shame. I’m here to expose the wrongdoings of we vapid readers, and to provide recognition of DJK’s stellar oeuvre, most recently Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days: Road Stories. Described as a B-sides by some readers, the collection manifests as a wonderful introduction to the unsung, still singing voice of one of our most engaging contemporary fiction writers to date.
I have become a Keaton convert, not only because his stories occupy a seemingly intricate relationship between cinema and great sentences, but there exists an indefinable character in Keaton’s fiction, almost like reading a Sam Raimi film novelization, where, all at once, the world is conjured limitless but curated for our maximum enjoyment. Keaton is an auteur, least of all evidenced by his wide movie acumen on the podcast Almost Good (with J. David Osborne). The rigor of Keaton to create thematic underbellies for his writing projects, especially compressed fiction forms, is outstanding. Look only to FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities, or Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, which recalcify our fandoms for cop dramas and zombie plagues. The new collection attempts to wrestle an assortment of car paraphernalia across the stymied borders of our imaginations.
In the collection, there is intent to transgress our comfortability with such narratives, sure, but Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days, published by Red Room Press (I see you, Shirley), exhibits the Wild West of Keaton’s mindscape, proving infinite in the previously uncollected stories spanning crime, thriller, and horror writing.
What’s more is you won’t feel an audible throat-yuck creep along your cilia from the stringent play of Keaton’s road; the hints and connectivity of such a thorough-line is suspect at best. The road becomes a character in itself, along with our journey through the murky limelight of Keaton’s formidable arsenal of stories. Characters and situations appear on the shoulder, sometimes reappear. It might be impossible to trip up the derelict study of the craftsman Keaton. He is the Swiss Army knife of authors.
Sometimes, too, the road plays minor roles, whereas, in stories such as “Body Cam Crosses,” the road is the main antagonist to the red herring mystery of a serial murderer guided by hatred for probationary road workers. Our nameless narrator possesses an awareness and steadycam control inherent in Keaton’s story descriptions: “Another fifty orange barrels, and time got even slower, down to about two miles an hour tops. I mistook the red glow of emergency lights on the horizon for the sunrise, another disappointment.” Keaton makes routine traffic stoppage tension-riddled as we anticipate a fight with an angry overbearing pickup “rattling like an empty train” from the beginning scene, only to be thrust into the plot headlong like a car wreck, no one being the wiser for it:
I was wiping the cop’s half-empty Coors off the edge of the bar and standing up to kick the can into the wall with a satisfying explosion of suds. He’d actually stood up before me, but I still had the advantage. See, cops probably fight real hard with a camera attached to them, but the camera also makes them fight fair. Big mistake.
Another story which deserves our attention is the enigmatic “The Ear Eater of Jasper County,” which plays on people’s fantasy to mythologize unexplainable phenomenon such as Bigfoot and Zero, the narrator’s domestic ratlike creature with expressive tendencies. In a couple of pages, a trio is made of instant friends/hitchhikers who attend a convenience store meeting of Axe Men and Camo Men discussing the legibility of supernatural photos. While the event grows increasingly uncomfortable after a documentarian gets thrown out and the doors are locked and bolted, the rat in the cage seems unimpressed by the sudden commotion: “I held my rat cage closer, trying to get smaller, wishing I could crawl inside with Zero, while Zero slept like it was his third Bigfoot meeting of the day.” As with many of Keaton’s strange predicaments, things are made claustrophobic by fists, and the meeting erupts in a fight that may or may not send someone home bludgeoned well past good.
The ability for Keaton to draw on disparate elements such as the child actor who played Danny from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or—viral hoax or not—clown sightings in and around wooded areas and popular sites for grave rubbings, verifies the unflinching, inimitable madness of his stories. For in Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days, never fear, even a pool party bus shows up. This occurs in the story “Spin the Throttle,” about a neverending party arranged between a group of friends, who, it so happens, have become stuck atop a fire truck-cum-pool party bus hijacked by its mad driver. They are all out of games and favors to pass the time—”‘I think everybody’s already kissed everybody,’ Reeves said, half underwater where he lived now”—so they unwisely end up Ouija-ing the road, the pool, first using an empty Devil’s Cut bottle as part-time planchette before other recyclables begin floating by. Except they are careening along unlit Kentucky back roads and don’t have a board. So the “revelers” use the water, which offers less resistance. Stop me if you know where this one is going: “It was the last party, where every party in the world had the potential to end up if it tried hard enough.”
The stories may be wicked and the text a cryptic personal zeitgeist, but the situations recall different players in our unremarkable lives. The road becomes complex and malevolent in Keaton’s reimagining, unbeholden to the Kerouac generation of trippers. Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days emerges as the new postmodern—yes, Bizzaro—road for the casual pilot amid chaotic skies of modern living. Read Keaton and weep. And weep. And weep. For beauty of the road’s end once more made treacherous and something new.
Jason Teal, Publisher & Editor of Heavy Feather Review, is a specter now living in the Little Apple of Kansas. He earned his MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University in 2017, and was coordinating host of the 2016-17 Bards & Brews Creative Reading Series at Ore Dock Brewing Company. His fiction appears in Knee-Jerk, Vestal Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matter Press, Hobart, and Quarterly West, among other publications. He currently hosts Driptorch Community Performance Series with Arrow Coffee Co.