When The Athens NEWS reviewed a book of stories in 2006 by local author (and musician) Bram Riddlebarger, it mentioned the writer's knack for "serving up banal, slightly ludicrous statements with an air of profound gravity," and his fondness for absurdly farfetched but oddly appropriate metaphor.
Both skills are still flagrantly on display in Riddlebarger's debut novel "Earplugs," published late last year by the University of West Alabama's Livingston Press. The similes in this book alone, in fact, are probably worth the price of a ticket.
"Rain showers loomed in our brains as if we were soggy French bread pirates adrift in cavernous bowls of onion soup with way too much pepper," the narrator observes at one point. A character bites into a newly cooked French fry, and "the steaming tuber smoked as if it were an idling backhoe ready to break ground on a frost-laden winter morning."
"Earplugs" doesn't boast what you would call a tight or intricate plot. It makes up for this with its cast of characters, and its careful, casually surreal evocation of a small rural town and sparsely populated county whose flavor (and look, and smell) is being buried under Development and Tourism, while the narrator watches in clownish despair.
This place doesn't have an actual name, but it does have a defunct brickworks, and a Rustic Drugstore, and a history of coal mining, and a Hippie Store. It's got a guy who manufactures salsa in flavors like Kimchi Habanero and Creamed Corn Queso-Teleggio, and a mayor named Service Industry, and a whole lot of "newcomer" residents from a mysterious place called Somewhere Else, and a brigade of slightly demonic hometown Biddies who stand up and cackle for all the old ways. Winding through it all is the Meandering River, on which tourists paddle canoes from the Meandering River Livery – (their company slogan: "It used to be fun") – while watching for attacks from homicidal river rabbits.
"White, frothy, and prone to be loud, the Rabbits were rumored to have swept lifevest-less children into the deepest depths of the river's channel, leaving nothing but insubmersible plastic oars and bobbing silver beer cans in the churned-up wake," the book recounts.
These rabbits also speak their minds freely, as do other animals, such as dead deer, which when shot and tied to bumpers during hunting season, voice complaints like, "Crap, I'm venison," and "I hope they don't jerk me." A hardware store clerk, trying to sell the narrator some nightcrawlers for fishing bait, offers as a selling point that "they don't talk much."
Plenty of other non-human characters in "Earplugs" also put their two cents in, Tom Robbins-style, including the books in the local library, which get into arguments and even physical altercations when the narrator stops in. (Riddlebarger acknowledges Robbins ("Another Roadside Attraction") as a forebear, noting, "Really my biggest influence was my mom's bookshelf growing up. She was sort of a child of the '60s.")
If the setting of the book sounds more than a little like Athens and Athens County, there's undoubtedly a reason for that. But this place is a kind of funhouse Athens County of the imagination, filtered through the eyes (though not always the ears) of a narrator who Riddlebarger admits is "not exactly trustworthy."
As the narrator interacts with other characters such as My Only Friend in Town, The Only Other Customer in Town, and his lost love Lisa (the only person in the book with a real name), he strives desperately, through his compulsive use of earplugs, to either keep the town from colonizing his head, or keep what's in his head from leaking away through his ears.
"He's either trying to keep everything in, or out," Riddlebarger explained.
The barrier is especially important, as this character seems to be preternaturally sensitive, picking up on and precisely describing every sensory detail of the town including its smells. These play a central role in the book, from the evocative scent of the town hardware store (which advertises, "STOP IN FOR THE SMELL!"), to the two competing odors that eventually come to vie for control of the community's hearts, minds and nostrils – the fetid Eau de Auld and the alluring but sinister Odeur Nouveau.
The book is in some ways a razor-sharp satire of small-town life, but it's far more sad than angry – and it's also very amusing. "It's sort of extremely sad and funny at the same time," Riddlebarger agreed. "I worked pretty hard to sort of do (satire) without it really being hostile at all. I tried to strike as much of a balance as I could there. Sometimes I succeeded, I think."
In his musical life, Riddlebarger plays what he describes as "old-time country music" in his trio, Bram Riddlebarger and His Lonesome Band. They often play in and around Athens.
"Earplugs" should be available at local bookstores and also on Amazon.com.