Return to Ramble House Page
Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page
THE RIDDLE OF THE
Francis M. Nevins
This is it. The big one. El Gordo. The nonesuch. The nonpareil. The sockdolager. The kafoozalus of wackadoodledom. A webwork epic of the first water. The only novel from Keeler’s last decades that can stand tall beside THE AMAZING WEB and THE BOX FROM JAPAN and the other gargantuae from his prime years. A kolossal kaleidoscope of Keeler Koinkidink, replete with conundrums, counterplots, Confucianisms and whathaveyou.
It’s a whale of a tale of a wacky will.
“The will of who?”
The will of Poo.
“And Poo is who?”
He’s Poo Ping Fu!
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
It’s also, of course, the tale of a wooden parrakeet. Why did an American about to be hanged in London’s Pentonville prison beg his death-house guard to bring him a champagne cork, a glass eye, and the bird of the title? How, more than ten years before, did the identical three objects figure in the murder of a young Chinese woman in Chicago? Why, more than ten years later, did a mysterious customer enter New York’s famous “If We Ain’t Got It, It Don’t Exist” store and purchase the exact same triad of items? And what have all these questions to do with the impossible skein of dilemmas in which Harry’s hero finds himself?
It will not surprise Keelerites to learn that the hero of PARRAKEET is Chinese—or, as most of the whites in the novel call him, a Chinkie. When we first encounter Kwan Yang—whose real name is Eng Wing, although he can’t prove it, and who is an American citizen by virtue of having been born aboard a U.S. submarine-chaser based in Canton harbor, although he can’t prove that either!—he’s working as a linen sorter in a Manhattan laundry. He dreams of marrying the lovely Su Lin and of becoming a famous architect someday, but his chances of achieving either goal are less than the square root of minus zero. For one thing, he owes seven more years of servitude to the ring that smuggled him into the United States. For another, his inamorata is the grandniece and ward of our old buddy Hong Lei Chung, supreme rodent of the Tong of the Lean Grey Rats Which Swarm the World, to whom the evil-faced opium-smoking gambler Lung Chee has already paid kush-tang money in return for Su Lin’s reluctant hand in marriage. As if those weren’t obstacles enough, the Immigration authorities are hot on the trail of evidence—in the form of a fingerprint from the tiny hand of a baby cremated in Canada many years before!—that Kwan Yang really is Eng Wing, upon the establishment of which fact the poor schnook will be locked up for a year and then deported back to the stinking docks from whence he came, to spend the rest of his life as a coolie. Of course, the wacky will of Poo Ping Fu figures in all of these complications. But if I were to hint at its outlandish provisions—or at how everything else in the plot is connected with the fateful game of Hui Hui Hung Shung played in a shack along the Brooklyn waterfront, or with the Chicago skyscraper commissioned by Simon Deck the Chocolate Bar King, or with Dr. Ramon Alfonso Marengo Ytturez, long-vanished inventor of a cheap synthetic morphine, or with any of the dozens of other strands that make up the web—this introduction might become almost as long as the book it introduces. Still and all, before I turn the platform over to Harry I need to say a few words about one subject.
THE RIDDLE OF THE WOODEN PARRAKEET is, among dozens of other things, a compendium of Keeler riffs on racial issues. In Chapter XVI, during demon newshawk Tubby Moffat’s interview with genealogical investigator Langham Wilshire, Harry inserts a sort of capsule history of America’s oppression of the people who have “had the dirtiest deal ever given any race.” Most readers unfamiliar with Keeler would assume that these words refer to the people known variously as negroes, Negroes, blacks, Blacks and African Americans. In fact of course they refer to the Chinese, whom Keeler clearly revered far more than the Anglo-Saxons. But he is by no means unaware of our historic treatment of blacks. Early in Chapter VIII the old hatchetman Hong Lei Chung morphs for a moment into a sort of philosophic Fu Manchu as he reflects on racism, which he considers a permanent and indelible feature of “a so-called ‘democracy’ that held a dozen skin tints with always the deepest colors on the bottom of the heap.” Just a few pages later, when his servant Yip Foy announces the arrival of black Pullman porter Joshua Moggs with a Niagara of poetic effusion, Hong rebukes him: “Thou art such an impractical man, thou—thou fool poet, that thou canst not even render a succinct businesslike statement: ‘The nigger is here.’ Show the black man in.” Clearly Keeler despised anti-black racism too—and attributed it not only to the white race but also to his beloved Chinese and, at least by implication, to lighter-skinned blacks. Here as in so many other novels, Keeler’s unusual way with words easily lends itself to misinterpretation, notably when he gifts Moggs with the sort of Stepin-Fetchit-meets-the-Kingfish dialect that no one else since the palmy days of Amos ’n’ Andy would dare use for a black character. But he also goes out of his way to describe Moggs (in the last paragraph of Chapter IX) as the “honest man to end all honest men...” Someday, I predict, a young professor of literature will earn tenure by fully exploring Keeler’s treatment of race. Exactly when PARRAKEET was written offers a riddle almost as enigmatic as the bird of its title. The novel is first mentioned in one of Keeler’s Walter Keyhole newsletters, apparently sent out in September 1959, where he describes it as a “ ‘30-daily-installment’ bang-bang-bang newspaper serial, just completed for Portugal’s leading newspaper, O Seculo...” But in two later newsletters he says that the paper never published the serial at all. Harry seems to have expanded the novel some time after that contretemps: his work records indicate that he completed it in 1960, apparently after he finished his only other book of that year (THE CASE OF THE TWO-HEADED IDIOT) and before May 17, the day his first wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler, died of cancer. His work diary gives the length of the manuscript as 90,000 words. But on the title page of the manuscript Harry changed his address from the house at 3530 North Fremont Street—where he and Hazel had lived for much of their long marriage—to the apartment hotel on North Spaulding where he moved after Hazel’s death. He also crossed out his estimate of the novel’s length and substituted a notation that it was now 125,000 words long. Taking a leaf from the book of Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE, I deduce that Harry added the unaccounted-for 30,000-odd words some time after Hazel’s death and before December 1963 when he married the former Thelma Rinaldo Eaton.
But how is that possible? you may ask. Didn’t Harry claim again and again that he couldn’t bring himself to do any sustained creative work during that 3½-year interim? Yes he did, and I believe him. But if you read WOODEN PARRAKEET side by side with Harry’s previous Poo Ping Fu novel, THE STRANGE WILL (1949), you’ll discover that two large chunks of the later book are lifted from the earlier all but verbatim. In Chapters IX through XI of PARRAKEET, Hong Lei Chung makes a deal with Joshua Moggs to board a certain New York-Chicago train and steal from one of its passengers the garish green jacket he’s wearing—a jacket one of whose buttons, recently stolen from the Lean Grey Rats, is a cross-section of the priceless Jade Egg of Confucius!—by substituting an identical jacket with ordinary buttons. This sequence comes straight out of Chapter XIII of THE STRANGE WILL, where Hong arranges with black railroad porter Efum Davis to make the same sort of jacket switch, this one aimed at recovering a button made from the nose of a sacred jade Buddha. (Its ultimate roots go back to Keeler’s 1938 novel FINGER, FINGER! where the sinister Japanese spy Chosoburo Kusomoto dispatches a younger spy to board another Chicago-bound choochoo and switch one Dryo raincoat for another in order to get hold of a quite different McGuffin.) Later in PARRAKEET—Chapters XIII through XV if you want to get technical about it!—we find old Hong giving a long lecture to the “London Chinaman” Wung Hip about the will of Poo Ping Fu. This material also comes from THE STRANGE WILL—Chapters V through VII, to be exact!—in which Hong gives almost the identical lecture to a different Anglo-Chinese, one Louis Ling of Liverpool. In my best Y. Cheng manner I deduce that these self-plagiarisms make up most of the material Harry added to PARRAKEET at some time during his sad years between wives.
None of these exertions helped him find a publisher for the novel in Portugal or Spain or anywhere else on the globe. The Ramble House edition marks its first appearance in print, and I am delighted to have played a small part in making it available. Your turn, Harry!
Return to Ramble House Page
Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page