[REVIEW] Tollbooth, by Bud Smith

Tollbooth cover
Piscataway House Publications
312 pages, $12.00

Review by David S. Atkinson

The summary on the back of Tollbooth by Bud Smith (author of Or Something Like That and Lightning Box and host of the interview program The Unknown Show) might lead one to expect a very familiar story. You know the one: guy in crap job can’t grow up and is about to lose the best relationship of his life. We expect such a story to concentrate on the emotional crisis he undergoes that brings him to growing up, finally realizing his course in life, and redeeming himself with the girl. Then, everything will be happily ever after, or at least mostly so.

There are endless examples of such stories, but Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is the only one to make a lasting impression on me. I didn’t dislike High Fidelity, but it has become emblematic to me of a certain kind of often-examined thirty-something male life crisis. I had some concerns after reading the summary that this is what Tollbooth was going to be. However, Tollbooth didn’t end up being so easily dismissed.

Tollbooth centers on Jimmy Saare. In his early thirties, and bald, Jimmy works in a tollbooth. As one might expect, he hates it. He has a wife, but is freaking out over the fact that she’s pregnant, never having wanted a kid. In short, he’s miserable. His time is spent hating tollbooth customers and obsessively lusting over a nineteen year old who works at an office supply store:

I’d innocently been eating a slice in the pizzeria next door, when she strolled in with her tight black pants, and white sneakers probably made of cloud. Her dark hair fell onto unbelievable breasts swaying beneath the kind of face that cannot be denied. The perfect face. When she sat down nearby, all I could do was stare at the back of her head, let her strawberry body spray drift my way.

I couldn’t even finish my pizza or the Fantá or the stupid garlic knots. When she left, her artful hips and legs and ass moving away from me, I followed slowly behind, leaving my trash on the table for the pizza people to care for. What was my next move? Follow her to her car? Assault her?

This might sound a lot like the ‘thirties guy who can’t grow up’ kind of story I mentioned earlier, but Tollbooth isn’t that simple. Jimmy Saare is a good hearted yet fuck-up kind of guy, which would be in keeping with the High Fidelity sort of thing, but he’s also more of a bastard than such a story usually presents. He builds a fort and sleeps there instead of going home. He finds himself sort of hoping that his wife will lose the baby. He buys his nineteen-year-old lust object booze and tries to sleep with her at some other kid’s sweet sixteen party. He even beats up third graders.

Nor is his wife the usual ideal ‘good and only wronged by Jimmy’ kind of person, the sort of thing I would have expected from a book like High Fidelity, where the real problem seems to mostly belong to the guy and the woman’s only problem is loving him. To the contrary, Jimmy’s wife seems about as messed up as him. She drugged Jimmy in order to shave his comb over before their wedding. She’s pregnant because she stopped taking birth control, revenge for when Jimmy bought her a dog after she said she wanted to have a child. The dog even ends up getting killed because Jimmy’s wife lied, telling the pound it had bitten their nonexistent child so that they would take the dog back.

Jimmy and his wife are both far more mixed than the usual characters of such stories, more realistically human, and so is Tollbooth. There are no easy redemptions inside. I hope I’m not giving away too much of the book, but Jimmy isn’t going to realize his childhood career dream and miraculously grow up in an instant, suddenly realizing that he always wanted to be a dad. Like real life, problems don’t get tied up in neat little bows. However, there are some sorts of redemptions. Perhaps, despite some of the wild and improbable things that happen in the book (particularly the events involving a teenage clown-head-wearing anarchist), they are the kinds of redemptions that are more realistically available to people.

After all, though many of us have never worked in a tollbooth, we’ve been trapped in our own lives. We’ve been in serious trouble with the people who mean the most to us. And, more importantly, there isn’t a magic moment where the course of events will suddenly turn around and we will be able to do exactly what we should have been doing. Most of us are somewhat lost and going to stay that way, just trying to be the best people we can and relishing the small victories when we achieve them. We have to learn to live within the confines of our actual worlds. These are the kinds of redemptions that are open to Jimmy – and to us.


David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

  • The story in Tollbooth may be imagined but the story feels real. The characters in Tollbooth may be imagined but the characters feel real. The writing in Tollbooth is so grounded it reads real. This is a book I would like to teach. Maybe I will.