Book Review : David James Keaton - Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead (2015)
Jason drove past a dead baby on the side of the road.
He drove a few more seconds, until he slowly realized what he'd seen, foot easing off the gas as he stared in the rearview mirror, engine revving down.
Our culture has a strange repetition problem. Once we fall in love with an idea, we're going to consume it, over and over again, until we're so gorged with it our children only will be able to enjoy it again. Take zombies for example. The Walking Dead, a monotonous yet oddly enjoyable television series, has started a cultural appreciation for the undead we're still not over with. There are zombies for everyone now: slow zombies, fast zombies, zombies in love, sassy zombies, I've seen enough zombies that didn't look anything like the creatures imagined by George A. Romero, I could spend my life without seeing another one and we're all to blame for that.
I had no reason to pick up Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead beside my grudging appreciation for David James Keaton's writing. The author of The Last Projector and Pig Iron likes to foster a BDSM-like relationship to his readers by making them suffer through multiple idiosyncrasies and narrative schisms before delivering the goods. He does deliver, though. Keaton's writing has a very distinctive feel to it, like David Cronenberg and George Cosmatos has a baby and this baby kept cracking creepy fucking jokes all the time. I mean, there's a place for fiction like that in my world.
Fortunately, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead turned to be some of David James Keaton's best work if not his most consistently brilliant effort to date. If you're looking for zombie stories to keep you in a Walking Dead mood, you're going to be disappointed though. There is no conventional zombies to speak of in Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead. There are sea zombies, animal zombies, underage zombies, self-conscious zombies, anything but mindless, rotting walkers hungry for brains. See, that's how David James Keaton's mind works: "I know there are zombies on the cover, but fuck you. You ain't getting what you're looking for. Because this is my book. Write your own fucking book if you want boring zombies."
That's the kind of guy you're dealing with here.
But the stories are pretty great. My favorite was by far What's Worst? It took a comfortable lead for best short story read in 2016, so far. The story attracted some serious venom from anonymous Amazon reviewers, but I thought it was brilliant. There are a dozen dead baby jokes scattered over the twenty something pages of What's Worst? but if you think this is one long dead baby jokes, I question your cognitive capacities. It is a wonderful, tender and definitely Keatonesque story about tragedy and loneliness. I've never thought I'd say that one day, but: you gotta read between the dead baby jokes, for fuck's sake. What's Worst? is everything that's good about using provocation for narrative purposes.
The longest story in Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead is titled Zee Bee & Bee and clocks at a little under 100 pages. Fortunately for the readers, it's the second best story in the collection and by far the most ambitious one. It's a strange and winded deconstruction of society's fascination for zombie, expressed through a merry gang of zombies who are concerned with doing their job the proper way. It's difficult to describe, but it's long, tortuous and peppered with great insight on zombie subculture. David James Keaton has an endearing madness to him that's most apparent on Zee Bee & Bee.
There isn't one bad story in the collection, but the rest is more conventional . Greenhorns (which I had read on Keaton's previous collection Fish Bites Cop!) is tense, claustrophobic and thoroughly original. Do the Münster Mash is haunting and beautiful in its own way. David James Keaton is definitely more than just a genre fiction enthusiastic comedian. He has a creative vision that carries over all of his work, something most authors don't have. The universes David James Keaton creates have one foot in the stark reality and the other in the oneiric realm of barroom stories and urban legends.
I thought Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead was fantastic. I've burned through the collection in a couple days and could've taken some more of David James Keaton's hostility towards the voracious cultural phenomenon zombies have become. It's probably my favorite book of his so far, but it's not something I can guarantee you'll like. Keaton is a master provocateur. These short stories will confront you to your own beliefs and might make you want to burn the book. If I was single, I'd use Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead as a speed dating device. It's your prerogative to dislike the book, but if you do I'm not that interested in knowing you as a person.