Like any geek, I am protective of my favorite artists, particularly when it comes to the way they are portrayed in fiction. Biopics and historical novels that get these favorites wrong in the worst possible ways make my skin crawl. For example, seeing the multi-talented Mabel Normand portrayed as a shrewish hack in the 1992 Chaplin film makes me want to smash the DVD to atoms.
Of course, Buster Keaton ranks highest among my favorite creative people. He’s my favorite filmmaker, bar none, and a major inspiration to me both as an artist and a human being. He was flawed like anyone, but he was also persevering, loyal, and unpretentious.
This makes certain portrayals of Keaton in fiction frustrating. Let’s take that oh-so charming load of slop The Buster Keaton Story as an example. It stuffs Keaton’s life into a predictable 1950s biopic framework: a talented star on the rise is undone by a personal vice. All the focus goes to Keaton’s drinking problem and post-sound career slump. We have no idea what distinguished him as a man or as a comedian, let alone as a cinematic master. As far as this movie is concerned, he was a professional alcoholic who did pratfalls on camera now and then.
That’s why I wanted to highlight two excellent Keaton-centric novels for this blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy Lord and Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan. On the surface, these books are wildly different: one’s a vampire thriller for adults, the other is a gentle graphic novel for children. But both present Buster Keaton as a nuanced personality without making him a Genius-Saint or a Pagliacci.
The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe
It’s 1927 and Buster Keaton is having it rough. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge is crumbling, his latest movie The General is not performing as expected, the studio system is starting to swallow up independent creators like himself– oh, and he’s being stalked by two fans. Fans who happen to be vampires.
Vida and Lee Anne decide to make Keaton their latest “pet,” threatening the lives of his loved ones to keep him under their control. However, Keaton starts to enjoy the sensually-charged escape vampire bites give him and he’s particularly drawn to the mysterious, soulful Vida. Unfortunately, Lee Anne is a jealous sociopath and the vampire underworld is not pleased about two of their own threatening undead anonymity by hooking such an illustrious snack.
I admit I am not the biggest vampire aficionado. I’ve read Dracula a few times and love George Romero’s revisionist Martin, but that’s about as far as my love for the blood-sucking undead goes. Wolfe’s book has not converted me into a vampire lover, but it is a good read, especially for Keaton fans.
What stands out most is Wolfe’s historical research. She knows Keaton inside out and even weaves her knowledge of his family history into the vampire narrative. She thoroughly nails the Roaring Twenties down too, from the social attitudes to the slang.
I also loved the little nods to other vampire stories. The most obvious is the book’s epistolary framework, evoking the articles, journals, and transcriptions that make up Stoker’s Dracula. The main meat of the book takes the form of journal entries narrated from Buster’s perspective, but these are bookended by emails between the discoverer of this “vampire diary” and individuals seeking to contest or accept the validity of the document. While this never ties into the overall narrative in any deep way, it is amusing.
Wolfe’s crowning achievement is her characterization of Buster himself. Narrated in first person, you can practically hear that deep, gravelly voice in your head. Buster is funny, self-deprecating, creative, and reserved. He is loyal to his family and friends, even if his relationships with his father and his wife are strained. He loves his work, even if it isn’t always appreciated by the audience or the critics.
Best of all, Keaton is allowed to be flawed. In my decade-plus time as a Buster fan, I have noticed a tendency in fandom to present Keaton as a guileless victim in every area of his life. Everything that ever went wrong for him is either blamed on the Talmadges, Joe Keaton, Joe Schneck, Louis B. Mayer, or whoever. Keaton is basically made into a Holy Fool undone by an unfeeling Hollywood. Wolfe credits Keaton with more agency than that. While he is initially blackmailed into being vampire chow, Keaton comes to see his interactions with the vampires as an escape not unlike being drunk. Just as in real life, Keaton is the partial author of his own unhappiness, but he is also a man concerned with doing right by his loved ones. His inner conflict on the matter is wonderful.
The original characters are no slouch either. Vida and Lee Anne are a striking duo. What’s great about them is how they are without a doubt menacing, but sympathetic and nuanced enough to avoid being simplistic monsters. I was particularly stunned by Lee Anne, who is quite evil (her manner of speaking and gleeful sadism brought to mind Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series), but made extra compelling by her almost poignant love of Hollywood fluff.
There are a few caveats some readers might have with the novel, but they stem from the vampire genre more than anything. Firstly, there’s some violence, with decapitations and bad run-ins with sunlight– which is to be expected when the bloodsucking undead are involved. Secondly, there are sex scenes, some of them graphic. Once again, your mileage may vary, though you can skip them without missing key story information if you so wish.
All in all, I would definitely recommend The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton. There is just so much to love, from the well-realized setting to appearances from other stars of the period. Even if you’re not big into vampires, Keaton’s characterization and the fast-moving thriller plot will keep you riveted.
Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan
Young Henry thinks he lives a painfully ordinary life in turn-of-the-century Muskegon, Michigan. His life is shaken up when the vaudevillians come to town for the summer. During this time, Henry makes the acquaintance of the child-comedian Buster Keaton. Buster is athletic, creative, and able to make people laugh with ease. Being a big star in a vaudeville act, Buster has everything Henry desires, but Buster is more interested in baseball and pranks than discussing his stage career. Can this friendship survive a case of mutual envy?
It’s difficult for most books to strike a balance between entertainment and education, especially when writing for children. Reading Bluffton, it’s clear that Matt Phelan wants to introduce the colorful world of vaudeville to young readers without turning the narrative into a dry history lesson. Phelan does this successfully, weaving the historical lessons into a touching narrative about learning to appreciate ordinary life.
Unlike The Vampire Diary, Buster is not the protagonist. That would be Henry, who like the rest of us is an outsider looking in at the crazy world of vaudeville. As a character, Henry is more than just a starstruck fish-out-of-water or a self-insert for the reader. In his small-town ordinariness, he’s a foil for Buster. Buster is famous and on the move constantly, which seems like a dream come true for a kid living in a quiet town. But for Buster, the celebrity’s life is a little overrated.
Keaton takes pride in his abilities and loves the roar of the crowd, but he knows Henry is lucky to not have to bear the adult burdens he must prematurely. It’s easy to forget he shouldered a great many responsibilities at such a tender age and that he was essentially the family breadwinner (a role Keaton retained throughout his life). The story also hints at Joe Keaton’s alcoholism, which as any fan knows, only became worse as Buster grew into adolescence.
Everyone in town but Henry catches on to the less glamorous elements of Buster’s life. Eventually, Henry begins to notice how much is actually going on around him and that his little town is not as boring as he believed. His neighbors have their own talents, such as music and painting, that they practice without the need to become famous or wealthy. Life does not need an audience or 24/7 excitement to be meaningful.
This message is a universal one, but it’s especially relevant in our FOMO-ridden age of social media. Millennials and Gen-Zers tend to think they’re all failures if they haven’t made an impact before age 25. (Not a prodigy? Not a millionaire? And you’re at the advanced age of 26?? You must be worthless!) Books like this make you wonder if Keaton actually did ever look out into the crowd and envy them in turn, at least once in a while.
Overall, this is a fine book. Kids who love history will enjoy it and anyone of any vintage can enjoy the gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Buster fans will love the imaginative peek into Keaton’s childhood summers.
As I was in the process of editing this post, it was announced that there’s going to be a new Buster Keaton biopic. Unfortunately, it’s based on the infamous Marion Meade biography, known for making… um, bizarre claims (like Keaton being illiterate) and further pushing the notion of Buster Keaton as a sad clown. I don’t want to make any judgements, though given my experience with Hollywood biopics in general, I’m not optimistic. There is a tendency to turn people into caricatures of who they really were for the sake of D-R-A-M-A, even though more often than not, the messy reality of a person’s life is more compelling.
That’s why these two books are such great reads from the perspective of a Keaton fan. Here we have no perfect angel in slapshoes, no sad clown. Both books acknowledge that real life is more complicated than our retrospective simplifications, allowing Keaton’s humanity to shine through. I would absolutely recommend them to you.
This post is for the Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the marvelous Silentology! Check out this link for more Buster-y goodness!
Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan
The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe