A long long time ago in Berkeley, I went out to play pool with a friend. We decided we’d pretend we were tollbooth operators with anyone we met. We met a trio of women out to celebrate one’s birthday. We played a game of pool, had a great time as they were all slightly drunk. One of them asked what we did for a living. We told them we were tollbooth operator on the Golden Gate Bridge. Their faces changed, their expressions doing their best to hide their disappointment. After that, it felt like the three were looking for any excuse to leave. I recalled this story as I read Bud Smith’s novel, Tollbooth, which is in many ways a modern allegory for the existential state of man. Jimmy Saare is a tollbooth operator:
“From inside, it was hard to gauge reality. Life was in constant jerking motions everywhere else, but in the booth, nothing happened. It never would. If the magma of the earth spurted out like a misjudged ejaculation and birthed new islands for my heart to discover, I wouldn’t done the happy dance even though I was crowded into my tin can…There were untold hours of torture in my work day.”
His wife is pregnant, he hates his job, and he fantasizes about 19-year old Gena. The book is a wild romp with twists and turns so fast, you never know what quite to expect, including a visit to Iceland, the afterlife, a birthday party gone wry, and a haunted fishing ship. The narrator’s voice is humorous, candid, and self-deprecating throughout. The story is addicting as Jimmy is a likably flawed character, prone to mistakes (some catastrophic), but at the same time, finding a way to surmount them. Smith’s prose really shines as it’s so candid, it feels at times like a hilarious conversation with an old buddy from way back. Despite the hard exterior, you realize the crux of everything in his life is love:
“Love is relief. Love is doubt. Love is a car crash that can’t kill you. Love is kissing a wound that will not close so that you both survive the night.”
He tries to escape, tries to find solace elsewhere, but no matter how far he travels, he finds himself right back where he started:
“The tollbooth and the downstairs bathroom in my house are the same dimensions: three and a half feet by three and a half feet. The broom closet in the house I grew up in was the same exact size, too. Coincidence? Or is this how the universe reveals itself in puzzles?”
It’s the tollbooth of our lives, passed, waiting, collecting, hoping, dreaming, watching stationary, stuck, hating it, loving it. Smith’s novel encompasses all the conflicted and contradictory emotions we experience and stuffs them all into that box which is, in a sense, an almost spiritual pilgrimage that leads straight back to the only thing that truly matters. I wasn’t really lying when I told those girls I was a tollbooth operator, at least in a symbolic sense. Bud Smith reminds me that I’m still waiting for change, still watching cars passing me by. Thirty-five cents please.