Tollbooth by Bud Smith (A Review)

By Brian Alan Ellis


Piscataway House
310 pages | $

Bud Smith is an indie-lit power animal. When not working construction in New Jersey, he writes brilliant books of short stories and poems, edits a literary journal, and even hosts his own Internet podcast. He also published a very good and powerful novel last year, called Tollbooth:

Nothing changes, these faces and vehicles are all interchangeable. The only thing that will surprise you is kindness.

It’s Jimmy Saare’s second day as a New Jersey tollbooth operator and he’s pulling a woman and her child from out of a burning vehicle:

I pulled open the driver’s side door. A woman fell out, her hair on fire, her once fair face now black. Orange dress, one pink flip flop. One bare foot. I beat the fire out with my palms, my shirt, her own dress. She moaned. I beat harder.

Years later, middle-aged Jimmy has nothing to show from his one heroic act except a plaque he received which hangs inside his tollbooth and is defaced by a hateful coworker. His wife, Sarah, is pregnant with their child, which doesn’t seem to help matters. Jimmy’s entire world is a tollbooth closing in on him, a lonely smothering:

From inside, it was hard to gauge reality. Life was in constant jerking motions everywhere else, but in the booth, nothing happened. It never would.

When Jimmy meets Gena, a teenage office supply clerk, he builds a fort in the woods and wallpapers it with his adoration for her. Then, after a gang of little kids start vandalizing his shrine, Jimmy tracks them down and beats the shit out of them.

This is Jimmy’s come-apart story. Not even Jimmy’s best friend, Ted, can reason with him. And as bad as Jimmy behaves, wife Sarah is also no picnic. She spent time in a mental hospital and even drugged Jimmy on their honeymoon so she could shave his comb over. She also blames Diesel Cottontail, Jimmy’s junk car (his prized possession), for the death of her mother, Dolly, who mercilessly haunts Jimmy:

The first time she appeared to me from beyond the grave, it was in an Atlantic City bathroom mirror on the night of my bachelor party. I was washing my hands in the sink, they smelled like the insides of a stripper.

She’d materialized in the bathroom mirror, flips of jet black hair and her horn rimmed glasses, “Look at you! Pathetic!” Dolly snarled, “Pathetic!”

Then she vanished. Just a brief little insult, then gone.

Jimmy is also being stalked (and filmed) by a manipulative teenager moonlighting as a nihilistic clown. Following an ill-fated hot-tub romp between Jimmy and Gena, the Juggalo/director involves the two in a botched porno shoot.

Jimmy then runs off to Iceland with a trust fund hippie named Bee, accidentally becomes a commercial fisherman, and nearly drowns.

In fact, there are many strange and harrowing surprises, including a brutal car crash.

Basically, shit happens and keeps happening. The plot takes maniacal risks and dangerous detours; characters are smashed and scattered, like a Hal Hartley movie (Henry Fool comes to mind). Yet, through it all, Sara and Jimmy, two highly damaged people, are left with a chance at something—not a typical lovey-dovey something, either—something a bit off. Something true:

Love is relief. Love is doubt. Love is a car crash that can’t kill you. Love is kissing a wound that will not close so that you both survive the night.

Like a Bizarro version of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (except not nearly as long, and maybe not as bleak), Smith offers us a wild and unpredictable study of one man’s breaking point, where redemption can only be achieved through maddening acts of folly and self-destruction.

Brian Alan Ellis is the author of The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow, 33 Fragments of Sick-Sad Living, and King Shit (illustrated by Waylon Thornton). His writing has appeared through such outlets as Skive, Crossed Out, The Whistling Fire, Zygote in My Coffee, Monkeybicycle, DOGZPLOT, Conte, Sundog Lit, HTMLGIANT, Connotation Press, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, That Lit Site, Diverse Voices Quarterly, flashquake, Spittoon, Spry, NAP, The Next Best Book Blog, and Atticus Review, and was also adapted and performed by the Buntport Theater group in Denver, Colorado. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

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