February 23: “Schrödinger’s Rat” by David James Keaton

Day three of Bowling Green Alum Week here at Story366. It’s a fun week, visiting these writers, often friends, but it’s difficult in a way, too. What most of you readers don’t realize is how hard it is to limit myself to seven for this week, as I’ve had so many choices. There will be the seven writers this week (whom I won’t name yet, as I like the surprise of each morning’s post), several collections that know of forthcoming this year (Matt Bell, Dustin M. Hoffman, Jeff Fearnside, Patrick Ryan), the two writers I covered back in January (Jean Thompson and Tessa Mellas), and a good-sized list of other writers whose are slated for next time (Tony Ardizzone, Mark Brazaitis, Jim Daniels, Melissa Fraterrigo, Steve Heller). Since I’ve sworn to only read stories I’ve never read before, that eliminates quite a few people whose books I’ve already read, like June Spence, Alan Heathcock, Tina May Hall, Seth Fried, Joanna Howard, Rebecca Meacham, Alicia Conroy, and Rachael Perry. And this doesn’t even include the alum I don’t know (of). On top of this are all the writers who have published individual stories, as eventually, I foresee me moving on from collections and over to literary journals, which opens up an almost-endless amount of possibilities, for BG, for every writer.

That’s a lot of names I just dropped, but I know a lot of these people are keeping track of Story366 this week—I’ve been posting the links to the BG alum FB page—and I sort of want to let everyone know if they’re in the queue this week, and if not, why.

Today’s post features a second-straight BG BFA alum, David James Keaton. Keaton was a student around the same time as yesterday’s subject, Monica McFawn, and I worked with him on his thesis, some time around 2000. He’d been atBG for a while, taking semesters off here and there, so he was there a bit longer than most undergrads; I got to know him a little bit better and still talk to him, via FB, pretty often. I like him a whole bunch, and I think he likes me, which isn’t a given with Keaton. He’s a straight-shooter, tolerates no bullshit, and even today, I’ll bet the tire iron in the trunk of his car has turned more skulls than lug nuts. He has carved a nice writing career for himself, too, off the mainstream path, his mix of crime, horror, and violence-themed stories finding their audience on smaller presses, in lesser-known journals.

In Keaton’s first collecton, Fish Bites Cop: Stories to Bash Authorities, Keaton takes on just that, authority. An example: His bio in the back of the book ends with “He hates cops, firefighters, and probably astronauts,” which is reflected in not only the book’s title, but in a lot of the stories. Titles include “Castrating Firemen” and “Nine Cops Killed for a Goldfish Cracker,” so he’s not messing around with political correctness. His anti-establishment attitude seems like a cross between Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, and Jeffrey Lebowski (for levity).

As there’s probably enough anti-cop sentiment going around these days (note: because they recently shot a lot of unarmed black kids), I’m instead writing about a prison story, my favorite in Fish Bites Cop, “Schrödinger’s Rat.” Cops are present—it’s set in a prison—but the story is focused on a different type of character, a Scottish dude named Holmes. His real name is Arthur, and he’s a descendent of Arthur Conan Doyle, which earns him his name. What earned him a trip to a maximum security American prison is another story. On his ride in, we find out that he and another white guy are the only two white guys on the bus, and the other white guy starts talking to him, each of them chained to an enormous man, who, as implied, is not white. This other white dude, playing the tough guy, ends his conversation with a rather audible racial slur, and instantly, he is punched to death. As in, one punch: dead. Holmes, for being an unwilling participant in all this, is beaten, too, by his chained companion Eight Balls, and spends the next six weeks in the hospital’s infirmary.

Holmes tries his best to adapt to prison life,, but it’s pretty clear that no matter what niche he tries to carve, the other inmates will have none of it. He’s not allowed to get comfortable. The story is told in first person plural, the we narrator the wise, conditioned populace of the inside. The narrator is unafraid, confident, and knows that Holmes is there for them to do with what they will. Eventually, thinking he’s just one of the guys, Holmes proposes a theory about prison life and Eight Balls has had enough. Holmes is officially anointed as his property, going through a ritual I thought was too gruesome to be real, but after some research, found out is very, very real.

What happens to Holmes isn’t really the point of the story, or why it’s effective. Keaton’s smooth, confident voice is the real star here, as the narration presents a familiarity of an environment that is seamless, convincing, and intriguing. At no point in Holmes’ ordeal does anything seem surprising or climactic, not to the narrator, but is instead treated with dark humor and acceptance, even predictability. It allows us a window into a harsh reality, demonstrating Keaton’s ability to pull his readers into a setting, into a story, and not let go, not until we see that setting on its worst, most honest day.

David James Keaton’s vision of fiction is different from a lot of writers’, as each story in Fish Bites Cop places us in the middle of a scenario, a world, and holds us there, makes us watch. It’s not often a pretty landscape we’re seeing, but no one ever promised it would be. Keaton’s worlds are grisly, ugly, and true, and he provides a distinct and talented voice to contemporary letters.

David James Keaton