Roll has recently had the opportunity to read the work of John M. Keller, one of the most original and most brilliant of the new crop of young American fiction writers, whose work was first recognized by Glimmer Train, the prestigious literary journal founded in 1990. Keller’s first book of stories, A Bald Man With No Hair: and Other Stories, published by Dr. Cicero Books, is an impressive collection that ranges the globe from Mexico to France, Cambodia, Tunisia, Russia and beyond, and penetrates deeply into cultures so varied that it’s hard to grasp how even as well-traveled a writer as Keller can have assimilated so many diverse expressions of the human spirit by the age of 30.
The different stories present the voices of an assortment of characters: a grocery store owner, a gastroenterologist, an actress, a painter, a cultural studies fellow, a transport employee, a commercial real estate developer, an idler, a university lecturer, a Mexican jack-of-all-trades. Beneath the diversity it is the human spirit itself that is Keller’s subject. Each of his tales journeys deep as well as wide, and displays a delight in the absurdities of human nature that made this reader laugh out loud.
The opening story, “People Like Me Better Because I Like Guacamole,” previously published by Glimmer Train, is the tale of Dmitri Sachenkov, a Russian PhD who is hired to go to Southern Chile to write advertising copy. At a layover in Moscow he meets a gypsy who predicts his death — “I have never opened myself up more to the possibility of death than on a trip where it has been predicted by a gypsy that I will die,” Dmitri says - and he decides to go anyway. Keller, who has spent the past decade teaching alternately in New York and Latin America, and traveling to Europe and the Far East, has also written three novels, the first of which will be published next summer.
Reading Keller’s work, one wonders if he hasn’t stumbled upon the most poetic and the most profound writer of his generation, comparable only to the South American masters, Bolano, Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Dr. Cicero Books, his publishers, are as international as Keller is, and are based in Rio de Janeiro, New York and Paris. They are at the forefront of the new breed of small, ambitious imprints that have sprung up to replace the publishers of previous generations. A Bald Man With No Hair is now available online through booksellers such as Amazon, and at select bookstores.
Roll Magazine: John Keller, you were raised in El Paso, a two-headed city, so to speak, attached to Juárez, Mexico, like Siamese twins. Has this dual identity of your early years influenced your life and work?
JK: It has. And probably most clearly by providing me with an extra set of synonyms for every word I knew in English. Mexico was always sitting just outside El Paso like a dream. And, in fact, it is the much larger of the two cities: 1.4 million to El Paso’s 650,000, and the two downtowns are connected. And, not only did this provide me with another word to describe everything, there was also a new sentiment, a new way of looking at every old thing. Crossing this border — physically, metaphorically — you were suddenly, immediately halfway across the world. I think in a sense we all have a bicultural — or multicultural — birthright; mine just happened to have a very obvious physical aspect to it. And growing up in El Paso also gave me one of the greatest gifts of all: the ability to grow up as an outsider in my own country, and to always see things — everything — inside out.
Roll: Is writing something you’ve come to relatively recently, or has the need to write always been with you?
JK: My parents tell me I began writing when I was four. I was obsessed with stapling together sheets of loose-leaf paper in the form of a book. There were always dozens of these things lying around the house. I started a magazine when I was in elementary school — probably again because I was just as much in love with the physical object as I was with what you found inside it — and another one, something called the Irish Liberation Manifesto, in high school, that we even got the school to pay for.
Roll: Irish Liberation Manifesto?
JK: I went to a Catholic high school in downtown El Paso. Eighty-five percent of the students in the school were Mexican or of Mexican descent. But our mascot was the Fighting Irish. We wanted to re-name ourselves the Fighting Mexicans; for some reason, the school wouldn’t have it.
Roll: Which writers would you cite as influences on your work?
JK: I think that my writing has probably been less influenced by other writers than by certain types of music or other arts, or even other languages, including the sounds of certain voices, those of friends or people like, for example, George Carlin, who was probably one of the greatest orators of our times. But the writers I hold closest to my heart are…to name the first to come to mind: Borges, Wilde, Machado de Assis, Dickens, Jorge Amado, García Márquez, Murakami, Nabokov, Sontag and Steinbeck.
Roll: You’re also a novelist. Tell us about your longer fictions.
JK: I’ve written three novels, one of which, Know Your Baker, is slated for publication in July ’13, the other two in subsequent years. KYB is about an artist — a famous one — who disappears, mysteriously leaving behind a painting the art community interprets as a suicide note. It’s also about the true-life story of the Juárez murders, the hundreds of girls who’ve gone missing or been murdered over the past two decades on the border. My second novel, which is called The Box and the Briefcase, the Moleque and the Old Man and the First Coming of the Second Son of God is about a gated city in Brazil where, to be granted citizenship, you have to either look perfect already or undergo plastic surgery to meet local beauty standards. The main character is a young girl, a soap opera actress, who was born and raised there but wants to leave the community and see what the rest of Brazil is like — which is forbidden by her parents and the community at-large. The last one, Abracadabrantesque, I’m still not entirely sure how to describe. It follows its protagonist all over the world — from England to Italy to Uruguay to the Sahara and finally to New York — over the course of 30 years, during which time the American Century unravels.
Roll: Thank you, John. Good luck with all these projects, and we hope to see you in Roll Magazine again soon.
Featured image of the author by Allesandro Clemenza