Tuesday, July 9, 2013

BLUFFTON by Matt Phelan

BLUFFTON by Matt Phelan is an interesting sort of tale. It's fiction, but it's exceptionally real. Named after a place, it's about a fictional boy named Henry, who lives in Muskegon, Michigan, and visits the nearby community of Bluffton, located near the shores of Lake Michigan. Except in a lot of ways, it's about a different boy -- a real boy known as Buster Keaton, who grew to be one of the greatest directors (and actor/directors) in history. Only truly, in the end, it's about what life was like in Bluffton during three consecutive summers (1908-1910), when the vaudevillians came to stay.

You see, once upon a time, before there were movies, there was vaudeville, described by "Ed Gray, Noted Monologuist" in the book as follows:

Vaudeville is variety.

A veritable cavalcade of comedians, jugglers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, musicians, and dramatic actors . . . . all for short, precise acts of the highest entertainment value!

A day in the theater promises twelve to fifteen acts to amuse, inspire, electrify, edify, and enlighten (for one small price).
And along with Harry Houdini, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and others, Buster Keaton was one of the biggest stars of the vaudeville circuit as part of a family act called "The Three Keatons". Their style of act was known as a "knockabout act", in which Buster got kicked, thrown, and dragged around, all while keeping a deadpan expression on his face.

This book is and is not all about Buster Keaton, but it does give you a good impression of what his life and childhood were like, and how it differed from the lives of "normal" children, who grew up in one place, went to school, and had to help out at home or in their father's shops. The book also makes clear why it was that in later years he always said that the happiest days of his life were the summers he spent in Bluffton.

The early 20th century and the people of Muskegon and Bluffton are brought wonderfully back into life, allowing the reader to experience what it must have been like for local kids to mix with the vaudevillians (and a little bit of the vice versa experience). Real - and realistic - in a way that a straight-up biography would not have been, for some readers this book will be a gateway to further research into Buster Keaton and/or vaudeville or Keaton's movies. And that can only be a good thing.

I reviewed an ARC of the book, which was (woefully) in black and white, but came with a fold-out card showing what some of the full-cover spreads are going to look like - and they are spectacular. Below is a photo I took of one of the spreads on the card, although I'm sorry to say that it doesn't do the work full justice. Still, it gives you a feeling for the aesthetic of the book, which is due out on July 23, 2013:




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