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Book Review: Bud Smith - Tollbooth

All of us have images, memories, anxieties, and general topics of discussion, which we would just as soon not hear about in any form or fashion. When it comes to those things, whatever they might be, some of us want to avoid the temptation to even glance at them for the rest of our lives. Most of us are simply waiting for someone to make us deal with uncomfortable, troubling things. That’s because most of unconsciously want to.

If you’re in the market for a worthwhile curator of unassuming misfits living out their days in surreal circumstances, quickly spinning visitors from the outside into dangerous territory, Bud Smith might be the guy to talk to. Anyone who has been lucky enough to discover the myriad of dark surprises and blunt comic gems of his short story collectionOr Something Like That already know he’s a writer of that caliber. Reading Or Something Like That is not a requirement to enjoy his new novel Tollbooth, but it’s worth checking out anyway.

Really, when it comes to Smith’s work, Tollbooth is as good a place to start as any. Through the eyes of Jimmy Saare, a tollbooth operator on the New Jersey Turnpike, Smith once again brilliantly creates a complete depiction of what some might call another member in good-standing of God’s Unhappy Miracles. We don’t have to listen to Saare for very long to realize that one or two strands from the wiring that keeps his sanity intact, the same wires all of us have, short-circuited at some point. You could make the same assumption about a lot of the people who hang around your own day-to-day life. These are people who are generally not dangerous. You just start to notice all the really weird things that come naturally to them after a little while (and they probably think the same of you, which is one of the nice things about life). You might also wonder what would unfold, if life were to suddenly start pushing them even further away from the center of stability.

Tollbooth shows us one possible outcome of that concept. Once we’re comfortable with living through how Jimmy sees the world, Smith begins weaving other characters and story threads into the narrative. And not even a single sentence of Smith’s inventive, consuming novel is wasted on unnecessary introspection, imagery, or plot. “Escalation” would be a good word to describeTollbooth. Guessing the climax of the novel would be a dumb move on your part. Smith knows that, and he seems to get a weird kick out of adding as many elements and hellish touches to the story as possible. As we meet 19-year-old Gena, the inexplicable (initially) object of Jimmy’s affections, or Sarah, Jimmy’s suffering, pregnant wife, or Kid with Clownhead, one of Smith’s most intriguing creations in this book, the stakes for a climax worthy of the extraordinary buildup climb higher and higher. Again, you don’t want to waste your time on assumptions. A writer like Smith doesn’t pull out all the stops as he does in Tollbooth for the sake of proving he can. Not without complete faith in the belief that you’re going to read the last few lines of the very last page more than once.

One after another, the short stories of Bud Smith are day passes to freakish scenes, described by viewpoints that usually couldn’t be made to understand why the reader is so uncomfortable. Smith’s writing is a sideshow, with enough disconcerting shades of reality to make it compulsory reading. But those are only short stories. Tollbooth is a sprawling epic that forces us to witness an incredibly diverse array of interpretations of the word and idea of “carnage.”

How often do we speculate on whether or not we could truly take ourselves and everything that makes us whole to the edge of oblivion? The answer for most of us is often enough. Tollboothanswers that question for Jimmy Saare. Jimmy does indeed get right to the edge. Smith paints this in such a painful, hilarious way, the reader winds up wondering if they truly could go to the places Jimmy visits.

You may or may not like the answer, but the points Tollbooth raises are going to be stuck in your head for quite a while.

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