Sunday Book Reviews – 1/27/19

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

How the Hell Did This Happen? by P. J. O’Rourke (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press)

History can be amazing. The actions exposed by the Mueller investigation have validated many suppositions and concerns about the 2016 Presidential election. The validations further undermine my ability to entertain an appropriate objectivity about the election. Proving me right only serves to overemphasize, in my mind, the concerns I had. What I need is an analysis that was independent of the Russian concerns and devious machinations, one that didn’t buy into the message being peddled by the mountebanks on talk radio but who does believe in our Constitution.

Enter Peej.

The book isn’t his best. It was written during times of obvious frustration, and that annoyance isn’t allowed off its leash. O’Rourke leaves the sensation that he’s got far more to say, in far less polite terms, but he’s still got too much respect for the political process to fully let loose.

That said, it is comprised of essays written across the course of the primary and general election season for the 2016 Presidency. It’s written from the standpoint of an involved outsider who has learned to recognize and to call out farce. It’s written from the position of a Libertarian-leaning conservative Republican who wasn’t having any of it.

I found the book engaging, and useful as a reminder of what other people, other informed people, were seeing during that election season. It helps to put the Mueller investigation indictments into perspective. With all of the excitement being generated about that investigation, some perspective seems helpful.

The Riddle of the Traveling Skull by Harry Stephen Keeler (1934, Dutton)

In the Gun in Cheek books, which I reviewed last year, Bill Pronzini dedicates an entire chapter to Harry Stephen Keeler. Riddle of the Traveling Skull has become his most famous work primarily because of the 2005 reprint edition produced by McSweeney’s.

One Keeler book is much like any other Keeler book, however… which is to say, insane.

The plots ramble, and coincidence is more likely to result in positive results than actual effort, research, or detective work. People are introduced and their backstories provided, only to have them quickly fade away as tangential to the plot. Stories within stories are given in a form of literary Russian doll game.

The racist stereotypes, particularly of the Chinese, have recently been the focus of much of the residual discussion of Keeler, but that’s like focusing on only one ingredient in a seven-layer dip. In this case, the dip is “crazy”. For people who find the Illuminatus books by Robert Anton Wilson too rational and linear, Keeler is the perfect choice.

They can also be fun. The most adroit mystery solver has virtually no chance of predicting the next four chapters in a Keeler novel, much less the final solution to whatever puzzle was presented… and sometimes the central puzzle of the novel isn’t even introduced until halfway through the book.

Keeler was not incompetent. He knew what he was doing, and because of that the actual mechanics of his writing were solid. The books are terrible, but expertly so.

Traveling Skull is a readily available entry into the works of Keeler, should you be so inclined. If you’re looking for a little literary nonsense there are few better choices.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.