Keith Buckley‘s first foray into the literary world, Scale (2016), was a solid, if somewhat routine, effort that served more as an intriguing starting point than a finished product. Perhaps where the novel suffered most was that its plot, which detailed the rise and fall of an aging musician, stuck too close to the Every Time I Die frontman’s own reality, while sticking to well-trodden scenarios without offering any real insight into his own personal experience—almost like he was playing it too safe. It is a welcome surprise, then, that the more original story and style of its follow-up, Watch, not only sees Buckley maturing as a writer but also delivering a novel that establishes him as a truly formidable literary force.
Watch‘s claims to be the story of a damaged man who abandons the concept of time in order to avoid any future trauma, who then gets lost in a snowstorm on the way to his local pub. Yet its blurb is as misleading as it is intriguing. For one thing, one of the few details that the novel is explicitly clear about is that John Harvey most certainly makes it to the bar—enters and leaves again—before getting lost in the snowstorm. A more precise description of the plot’s premise would be something along the lines of “A grieving widower, who has lost track of time, suddenly gets an erection and sets of to seduce the saucy barmaid at his local establishment.” It might not sound as classy, but neither is John Harvey. More importantly though is that, while the novel claims that, rather than replacing the battery in his watch, Harvey “decides to let go of time altogether” (7; emphasis added), it is more accurate to say that he allows time to be let go, rather than playing any active role in its dismissal.
Harvey is an incredibly passive presence in his narrative. One of his key personality traits is that he allows things to happen to him, not because of him. Harvey is enraged by time. However, he remains beholden to it. In fact, to begin with, he tries rather valiantly to hang onto the concept of time—continuing to perform his morning rituals to a precise, if entirely subjective, schedule; as “a ‘fuck you’ to everything that took away his joy” (20). Harvey’s watch may have stopped, and the calendar in the bar’s basement hasn’t been changed for years (144). Nevertheless, the world moves on—even if John Harvey won’t; for, as he reminds himself, and as the novel’s Chuck Palahniuk-style “chorus” regularly reminds its reader: “the negative image of certainty isn’t uncertainty. It is hopelessness” (26).
Watch is a meditation in despair. John Harvey is a man who has lost everything and, as the narrative moves forward, it is suggested that he may not have even had it all to begin with. Whereas Scale was somewhat jarring in its rigid alternation between its protagonist Ray Goldman’s past and present, with Watch, Buckley allows events to drift in and out of the narrative as required. Just as Goldman reflected back on the beginnings of his musical career and the episodes that led up to his contemporary crisis, so too is Harvey fixated upon the experiences that have caused him to seek solace among the kind of drunks who laugh with and high-five barmaids simply because they “ha[v]en’t made contact with a woman in over three decades” (37). The drifting nature of Watch‘s narrative should make it harder to follow than the rigid Scale. Instead, the more organic, almost stream-of-consciousness style makes for a far more engrossing and resonate experience.
The novel’s characters also feel far more fleshed out than those of Buckley’s debut. Even singularly serving characters, such as the desperate barmaid Dinah or saucy swingers David and Elanor hint at more complex lives than those of the largely archetypal cast that populated Scale. One-dimensional characters are deliberately and effectively so. The more Harvey delves into his relationship with the departed Zola, the more he and the reader begin to realize their relationship was based around a mutual appreciation of Relayer-era Yes and little else—and, even then, Zola’s insistence that they bail early on one of the band’s concerts to go and consummate their relationship in one of the venues portable restrooms suggests she isn’t entirely committed to the cause either.
Buckley’s writing has also improved remarkably from his first novel. While the seemingly gratuitous early interjection in Watch about “Vagina Dentata” (y’know) still screams Palahniuk-ian shock tactics, Buckley also leans more heavily into his minimalist style, making for a far more impactful and economic experience that of Scale. There’s less of Buckley’s trademark grandstanding lyricism, though certain turns of phrase still strike their mark. A rare, first-person interjection about “Schrodinger’s sandwich” (128; italics removed) strikes a chord, and there’s even something catching about the rhythmic efficiency of such mundane descriptions as Dinah raising the “the hinged portion that allows her behind it” [the bar] (130) that inspires awe at Buckley’s craft. In fact, it’s only when he overreaches in some of his analogies; such as when describing the “layers of time that lie like stacked plates” (146), or in claiming, Zola “was rushing water of a woman” [sic.] (101); that his writing ever truly falters. Watch‘s conciseness is also felt in its overall length. The book clocks in at a mere 148 pages—making for fairly light and almost disproportionately rewarding read.
Buckley also makes more effective use of cultural references to inform his plot and characters. While in Scale, many of the allusions to bands and artists felt, at times, like overwhelming fan/lip-service, in Watch such references are carefully deployed and always carry broader implications. That John owns an autographed photo of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly (103) tells you something about his ideals and aspirations, and the fact that David—who, “”To no one’s surprise … sold car stereos” (104)—idolizes (a pre-“Danger Zone”) Kenny Loggins tells you about all you need to know about him (105). As far as I can tell, the song “Valentine’s Day” by The Picnics (31) is made up; as is the author Clark Andrews and his famous quote: “We will only be judged by what we do. Not what we refrain from doing”; appear to be made up. (Please do enlighten me if they are not; it seems strange that they would be when genuine references have been used everywhere else.) However, real-life relics such as the Kelsey-Hayes prefab fallout shelter (92) help to create an authentic illustration of an era from which the world has long ago moved on, and a greater world whose larger events continue to proceed despite John Harvey’s defiant detachment.
(check out the slap-bass solo at 2:33)
The novel’s tone is still somewhat uneven. Harvey’s early musings about capillosus tumours and whether “hair could grow on a fist if it were closed tight enough” (12) serve as a gripping hook during the book’s early stages, though these irreverent contemplations quickly disappear from the narrative—perhaps only resurfacing when he later wonders, during the snowstorm, whether the local gravediggers “had already dug a winter’s worth of holes” (96). However, Harvey’s realization—while considering his mother’s fatal car accident—that a hole he punched in the wall “looks more like a toothed vagina than a moray eel” (7) also carries distinctive echoes of Crash (1973) by J. G. Ballard, whose psychosexual preoccupations with time perfectly set the tone for the novel.
Should Buckley continue to base his literary output around leery, damaged men then he runs the risk of falling victim to the same toxic cliches so many of his forebears have often degenerated into. Yet, as far as his second run goes, Watch is both a vast improvement over his first offering and a superb novel in its own right. Fans of Scale will only find more to love amid its pages, while those who were more skeptical of Buckley’s further foray into the written word will be met with irrefutable proof of his literary prowess.
Watch is out now through Rare Bird Books. Read our review of Scale here.