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A book find from Roger Ebert

February 12, 2010 |  5:11 pm

Harrystephenkeeler

Film critic Roger Ebert used to be heard all the time; he was on TV as one of the original hosts of "At the Movies," showed up regularly at film festivals and taught at the University of Chicago. Opinionated, informed and affable, he was an enthusiast with a platform, and for a while it seemed like he was everywhere.

After complications from cancer, which resulted in surgery, a tracheotomy and a period of serious illness, Ebert lost the ability to speak. That was not quite three years ago. If it had been a decade earlier, that might have been the last we heard from Roger Ebert.

But Ebert was always a writer first -- he even wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer's unforgettable "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" -- and he's been writing like mad. Although he focuses on film at his Chicago Sun-Times column, on his blog he can write about anything, and he does. A voracious, late-night consumer and distributor of cultural ephemera, just today he's blogged and Tweeted about the restoration of "Metropolis," the music of Bill Withers and a Chicago pulp writer named Harry Stephen Keeler. Ebert writes:

Harry Stephen Keeler was the most prolific Chicago novelist of all time -- and perhaps the most forgotten, although perhaps we may have forgotten an even more forgotten novelist. Not even the devoted, even fanatical, members of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society
claim significant fame for him.

Yet perhaps no published author in history has produced more convoluted, bizarre plots, one of them related entirely in dialog between two men stranded on a small river island, another concealing its denouement within a Sealed Page at the end.

Ebert was tipped off to the fact that Keeler (who died in 1967) is on Twitter, posting choice quotes from his many novels, including, "This fellow's fakealoo is baloney of the purest ray serene. If--if you don't mind my mixing my metaphors!" and "It was like trying to think about the square root of minus zero, or something." 

In 1942, the New York Times wrote of Keeler, "We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy."

Perhaps the same could be said for Roger Ebert. He's an irrepressible polymath with an Internet connection and a keyboard: He's as informed and opinionated as before but seems to be sharing more of his intellectual edge. And having more fun.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: From Harry Stephen Keeler book covers. Credit: Harry Stephen Keeler Society

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