The Keys to Tulsa
by Brian Fair Berkey
Washington Square Press
Rating – 6.5/10
Summary – The Keys to Tulsa is a suspense novel that drags the reader through the gutter while making some pointed comments about “Reagan’s America.” I’m glad that I read it, but the novel is unfocused and – therefore – just misses the mark.
Review – In 1989 Brian Fair Berkey came out of nowhere and published The Keys to Tulsa. To date, he has not published another novel. This is a shame because The Keys shows that Berkey has enormous potential as a writer, despite the book’s many flaws.
The novel centers on Richter Boudreau, the ne’er-do-well son of a once-prominent Tulsa family. Boudreau escaped Tulsa during the 1960s when he attended college at Berkeley, but finds himself stuck back home in the early-1980s. Life is pretty bleak, as Boudreau has money, drug, and relationship problems. In an unsuccessful effort to make ends meet, he teaches at Tulsa University, writes movie reviews for the local paper, and dreams of finishing a screenplay.
Though a failure by most standards, Boudreau thinks of himself as better than everyone else in Tulsa. Boudreau says:
“Tulsa was a sociopolitical jerkwater, an isolated pocket of oilmen, defense contractors, racists, Republicans, and religious fanatics – a place forgotten by time, like one of those tiny hamlets in the Appalachians where they still spoke Elizabethan English. Heterogeneous opinion was inappropriate; you spoke the common language or you kept your mouth shut. Living in such a place, he’d always felt, required a good sense of humor. The laughs were there if you kept your voice down” (page 65).
At the beginning of the novel, Boudreau falls back in with an old flame, Vicky Stover, a woman from a wealthy family who married a roughneck and lost her inheritance. Boudreau is in debt to Vickie’s husband, Ronnie, due to a drug transaction; Ronnie offers Boudreau a chance to work off the debt by doing a favor. Predictably, the favor leads Boudreau to a very dark place.
It’s difficult to generalize about The Keys. There’s a lot to like and dislike about the book. On the one hand, Berkey’s talent allows him to create vivid characters and give the reader a tour of Tulsa’s underworld. On the other, the book is burdened by its seedy cast, which often makes it difficult to care about these lowlife. Consider Boudreau description of himself:
“Waiting at the elevator door, he checked his reflection in the little window. For a long bad moment he saw someone else looking back. The reflection had the small weak mouth of an incomplete predator, a suckling; a mouth of cirrhosis and arterial cholesterol and sour lungs; the mouth of a blind creature searching for a tit. It was, in fact, his father’s mouth, and not his own” (page 50).
The Keys falls somewhere between serious and popular literature. I think that the novel works best simply as a “good story.” There is a lot of action and there are many good subplots that come together at the end. However, Berkey wants to do something more in that he comments on religious fundamentalists, Reagan’s stupidity, Tulsa’s race relations, and a host of other ills. I don’t think that the attempts to inject social commentary are particularly successful; they seem awkward to me.
This is the sort of book that reviewers often call “a promising first novel.” It’s good, but it could have been better. Who knows if we will ever see a second novel from Berkey? If hope so. In the meantime, The Keys is quite good, if imperfect.