A Review of Bud Smith’s “Tollbooth,” by James H Duncan

There’s nothing I hate more than a flowery book review/blurb that blows smoke up a reader’s skirt, so I’ll go ahead and give you my no-bullshit take on Bud Smith’s new novel Tollbooth. It’s funny, relatable, and entirely original — really, it is — following a long-suffering tollbooth jockey in New Jersey as he daydreams through his job, laments his unhappy marriage, falls in love with a young, local cashier, and becomes obsessed with befriending a clown-paint wearing anarchist teenager, all of which leads Jimmy “Tollbooth” Saare deeper into the insane rabbit hole that might either be the average workaday world we all inhabit or a complete mental breakdown of his own creation – or both.

One of the great aspects of Bud’s novel is his ability to take a normal situation, be it working in a tollbooth, making copies at an office supply shop, or getting Chinese food with your wife, and weave a surreal narrative into the mix without losing the plot. At no point in the novel does anything feel too 9-to-5 bland or too absurd to not possibly happen to the right unlucky schmuck in real life. There were many moments where I thought, “Alright, this is getting weird, and it’s going to go way off the tracks now,” but he always loops in another true epiphany, another understanding about what it feels like to be unsatisfied in modern America. It’s a careful balance that Bud manages very well.

I also had the worry in quite a few spots that events were getting to the point of being unresolvable, as Jimmy Tollbooth’s descent becomes shockingly chaotic at times, even to the point where he finds himself committing grand larceny, arson, and assault, but again, Bud steadies the ship, keeps the plot moving, keeps Jimmy on his feet. And some of the funnier moments in the book are when chaotic events are inflicted upon him without his involvement at all, potentially ruining his life, career, relationships, and he shrugs it off, even encourages these events, and runs headlong into the horrors of adulthood waiting for all of us with reckless abandon.

This isn’t a book to analyze so deeply that you’ll have to think, “Would this really happen?” It’s a book to laugh with, to fear with, and to use as a mirror to help you look at your own life and wonder, “Shit, is this all there is?”

Like all great characters of darkly-humorous fiction, be it Heller’s Yossarian, Bukowski’s Chinaski, or Palahniuk’s unnamed protagonist in Fight Club, Bud Smith’s Jimmy Saare makes choices you’ll root for and choices that will make you groan, and that’s the sign of a truly independent character, someone who is growing on their own and challenging the reader to stick with him, to see where this is going. And the journey does not disappoint. Not every string is tied together by the end as neatly as you’d hope, or at all, and that’s okay. That’s LIFE. I was impressed by the way Bud handled tricky key scenes toward the end with realistic awkwardness and dialogue, issues unmentioned, issues thrust into one another’s face, and a sense of moving ahead that is neither Hollywood simple nor lacking in emotional resolve.

Long story short: I liked it and I’m glad I read it, and you can find copies at any of his readings (his blog is here) or by going to Amazon.com today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  

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The views and opinions expressed throughout belong to the individual artists and may or may not coincide with those of the other artists (or editors) represented within the magazine. Hobo Camp Review supports a free-for-all atmosphere of artistic expression, so enjoy the poetry, fiction, opinions, and artwork within, read with an open mind, and comment wisely. Thanks for stopping by the Camp!