Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe: A Novel by M. Henderson EllisKeeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe: A Novel by M. Henderson Ellis

Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe: A Novel

byM. Henderson Ellis

Paperback | February 12, 2013

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Not long ago, John Shirting--quiet young Chicagoan, wizard of self-medication--held down a beloved job as a barista at Capo Coffee Family, a coffee chain and global business powerhouse. When he is deemed "too passionate" about his job, he is let go. Shirting makes it his mission to return to the frothy Capo's fold by singlehandedly breaking into a new market and making freshly post-communist Prague safe for free-market capitalism. Unfortunately, his college nemesis, Theodore Mizen, a certified socialist, has also moved there, and is determined to reverse the Velvet Revolution, one folk song at a time. After Shirting experiences the loss of his sole "new-hire" -- a sad, arcade game-obsessed prostitute -- it is not long before his grasp on his mission and, indeed, his sanity, comes undone, leaving him at the mercy of two-bit Mafiosi, a pair of Golem trackers, and his own disgruntled phantom.

A dazzling combination of Everything is Illuminated and Don Quixote, with a jigger of Confederacy of Dunces, and Lord of the Barnyard, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is the first novel to so exquisitely capture the ambiance of expat Prague. Poised to be an underground classic, it asks: what does it mean to be sane in a fast-changing world?
M. Henderson Ellis lived in Prague for two years in the first half of the 1990s and there taught English and tended bar. A Chicago-area native and a graduate of Bennington College, he has lived in Budapest, Hungary, since 2001, where in 2004 he co-founded the English-language literary review Pilvax, which he edits to this day. He makes...
Title:Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8.48 × 5.47 × 0.68 inPublished:February 12, 2013Publisher:Steerforth PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0982578180

ISBN - 13:9780982578186

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Read from the Book

A Solitary TravelerA pig led by a skinhead emerged from the nighttime fog. Shirting was fidgeting with his glasses, which were cumbersome, black, and worn without a trace of irony, when the skin spoke to him in Czech. To Shirting the pair resembled a comic book superhero and insouciant sidekick. He merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled.“Sprichst du Deutsch? Deutsch?” the skin said in German. Shirting was unsure if he was being slighted. He had seen such characters as this on talk TV and was torn between putting the fascistically apparelled youngster in his place and making a good first impression; it was, after all, his first spontaneous encounter with a local.“I hate to disappoint you, but my allegiance lies elsewhere.” The blank look on the skin’s face prompted him to continue: “Though it is quite possible that I share a love of efficiency with the folk of your beloved Vaterland. One time, at Capo Coffee Family, I singlehandedly managed the espresso machine during the morning rush. Not an easy operation, what with the countless flavor options offered by any Capo’s outlet. I only mention this to demonstrate that there is always a bit of common ground between people, if they only look for it.”The skin glanced between Shirting and his pig, which was rooting around Shirting’s Buster Browns. He then leaned forward, assuming the confidential mien of a black marketeer. “Germany,” he said in barely accented English, “does not exist. It is nothing but a state of mind, a shunyala, as the mystics say.” At this point, Shirting felt the pig’s damp snout probe his bare skin, having nuzzled its way between his sock and pant leg. He jumped back in revulsion.“Get that thing away from me, the dastardly beast. It downright reeks of the slop and disease!” He glared at the skinhead, who appeared not to hear his appeal. Shirting’s indignation mounted as he perceived something incongruent about the boy’s appearance.“Is that a Star of David you are wearing?” he asked. “Some of our most adamant customers at Capo Coffee Family were of Jewish persuasion. I won’t hear a word against them,” he added preemptively.“Jews, as you call them, do not exist either,” the skin said, finally pulling the pig off Shirting by its tail. “Yin to the antimatter yang of the German state.” The furrows in the youth’s brow, so deep they might have been imprinted with a pie cutter, manifested the seriousness of his convictions.“Your sentiments reek of . . .”“Neo Mysticism?” the skin said hopefully.“Garlic . . . mostly garlic.”Shirting could see that he was dealing with a madman, made all the more dangerous by his command of the English language. Not that Shirting was unaccustomed to the imbalanced. The marketing at Capo Coffee, the premium coffee chain he had until recently worked at, was very much geared toward affecting an atmosphere of calm in which customers could loiter and indulge themselves—needless to say, a veritable outpatient services office for needy and hysterical personalities. Shirting reflexively reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a free drink coupon, offering it forth in hopes of quelling any anxiety his outburst had provoked. The skin accepted the ticket, a glossy paper-plastic blend decorated like a comic dollar bill, with an illustration of an Al Capone-like gangster in the oval frame, pinching a tiny espresso cup in his fingers and winking confidentially.“It’s for a Capone’cino, like a Cappuccino, only with more muscle. For twenty cents extra you can get a Lucky Latte-ano, but the Capone’cino is the flagship drink, so that’s what I’m pushing.” “I can see you are one with us,” the skin said, accepting the offer. He then caught Shirting off-guard by spinning around on one foot—a revolution that, when complete, revealed him to be adorned with a small accordion. Had it been hanging off his back all the while? Shirting would be hard pressed to deny that the instrument was not produced from thin air.“Ein, Zwei, Drei—” the skin chanted before breaking into a klezmer-embellished riff. The music’s mystical qualities warmed Shirting to his new acquaintance. It was not long before, on that first summer night in Prague, that John Shirting had danced a jig, the moves of which were so categorically Shirting: arms flailing out in front of him like a mod zombie, legs kicking, as though he were perpetually falling backwards off a cliff. He felt under a spell and unable to resist, the skin having so thoroughly infected him with his own unselfconscious crunching of those wheezing bellows. For how long he was entranced he could not ascertain, nor would he be able to verify that the pig too was not up on its hind legs enjoying a frolic of its own, or perhaps mocking Shirting’s spasmodic steps.“Yours is a fine world music, a fine world music,” the winded traveler would say, once the tune had ceased, his free will regained. “I apologize if we got off on the wrong foot, but as a city dweller I am not accustomed to livestock and their affections.” Shirting reached down and held his finger out for the pig to sniff. When he looked up again, he discovered the skin was now offering a snow globe to him in his outstretched palm. Illuminated under the night sky, he could see the cityscape of Prague inside the small glass dome. The skin suddenly withdrew the snow globe and shook it. Shirting felt immediately dizzy, as though he himself had been shaken, and—if only for a moment—the cityscape of Prague somehow bled into his own porous flesh.Once he steadied himself, he decided it was time to sally on. Shirting waved a salutation to the skin. In return the skin held up his arm in a “heil” salute. Shirting, in a surge of optimism and companionship, mistook this gesture for a high-five, and slapped the skin’s hand with his own.“Shalom,” the skin said. Shirting smiled exuberantly. “Shalom,” the skin repeated, walking backward, away from Shirting before disappearing, as he would later note in his travel journal, “cinematically” into the fog. The pig too would follow its master into the cover of night, but not before making three revolutions around Shirting as though he were a pylon on some swine obstacle course. The American looked after them with longing. Though they had treated him shortly, Shirting harbored no malice. A solitary traveler, he felt quite alone in that unknown city and had been grateful for the company. 

Editorial Reviews

"There are wonderful descriptions of the place and people that made Prague Prague. . . . There is a deft re-creation of the chaos that accompanies revolutions, and the clashing of political and social systems—no easy task—paired with a great love of Prague at that particular time, that come together to create a novel of .  . . beauty. — "As the world grows smaller, your neighbor's problems become your own. Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe is a humorous novel with a strong dose of blacker comedy from M. Henderson Ellis, who discusses the concepts of globalism [and] capitalism, touching on the satire and finding the little bit of our lives to piece together our lives in the process. . . . [A] must for any contemporary literary fiction collection. Highly recommended." — Midwest Book Review "A novel for readers who enjoy smart writing, wry humor, fresh settings, and above all, eccentric characters. . . . [F]rom Shirting's remarkable encounter with the philosophical skinhead to the novel's funny and surprisingly touching conclusion, Ellis weaves their stories together with an impressive balance of comedy and poignance."— "This book comes highly recommended along with the cliched statement, 'If you're going to read one book this year, have it be . . .' Bedlam is chock full of hilarious set-pieces, strange characters, biting satire, and verbal bombast. . . . It is not only wonderfully written, but it is a book that has wide cross-over appeal. The Andrei Codrescu blurbs on the front and back cover give it the needed NPR hipster bona fides, but this is also a light comedy one can read on the beach, at the airport, and elsewhere." — Karl Wolff, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography "Both charming and absurd in all the best ways."— David Gutowski,"Difficult to put down, unsettling yet addictive, the novel is a must-read for anyone who dares to peek behind the postcard image of a famously beautiful centre of European civilization." — Winnipeg Free Press "An ode to expatriate living, culture clashes, and the heady days of early 1990s Europe, this novel is a manic, wild ride. . . . [D]arkly comic . . . immersive, nostalgic, and thoroughly enjoyable." — Booklist "As the title suggests, disorder predominates in Ellis’s debut novel set in Prague during the dizzying days of the early 1990s. John Shirting is a quirky and unbalanced former barista from Chicago with a pill habit who winds up in the newly capitalist city hawking a plan to establish a chain of mobster-themed coffee shops. . . . The picaresque absurdity will be familiar to fans of Thomas Pynchon, along with the low-grade paranoia and aggressively whimsical dialogue. . . . . Ellis vividly re-creates the atmosphere of a city in the throes of transformation as well as the American Quixotes who populate this new frontier." — Publishers Weekly“Former barista John Shirting from Chicago, an expat in the hallucinatory Prague of the Nineties, stands in the good company of Ignatius J. Reilly, Chauncey Gardener, and Forrest Gump as a remarkable and original member of that autistic and exclusive club. In creating Shirting, Mr. Ellis has enriched the literature of estrangement and given us a marvelous portrait of postcommunist Prague in its heady and wild rush into capitalism. This novel is a worthy addition to both expatriate writing and Czech storytelling, managing also to reflect in its rollicking drive profound insights into the ideologies of the last century.”—Andrei Codrescu, author of So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems and New Orleans, Mon Amour"John Shirting, master of mission statements and misfit of the planet, makes his way to Prague to offer change that's not needed. A loveable mess, he lives in the past while trying to escape it, often unable to tell whether he's getting better or worse, but his obsession with building a global outpost of the American coffee chain that fired him keeps him moving forward. Ellis has written a hilarious hallucinatory satire, built on shots of caffeine."  — Amanda Stern, author of The Long Haul“With fresh and evocative language, Ellis delivers us into a frenetic and history-haunted world. By turns strange and subtle, imaginative and knowing—and also often very funny—this assured and original debut novel is a must-read for anyone, like me, who ever daydreamed about expat life in 1990s Eastern Europe but didn’t have the nerve to go for it.” —Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking With Men, Drink columnist, New York Times Magazine"Thanks to Ellis’s wickedly good writing and laserlike focus on the absurdities of expat life, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is an arresting, hilarious, and thoroughly enjoyable novel — both a vivid portrait of an already bygone era and an up-to-the-minute snapshot of civilization in decline." — Katherine Shonk, author of Happy Now? and The Red Passport"Don't let the title fool you. The bedlam here is never kept at bay for very long. Ellis writes with manic, overcaffeinated energy about the wild westernization of Prague after the fall of the Iron Curtain and he captures that era perfectly. A strong and lively debut." --Andrew Ervin, author of Extraordinary Renditions“Mr. Ellis has fashioned a delightful, and ultimately moving, traipse through Middle Europe in bitingly satiric prose reminiscent of Joseph Heller, David Markson, and Alexander Theroux at their most playful. A pleasure.”—Joshua Cody, author of [sic]: A Memoir