Perhaps we're not going to discuss "love" exactly -- more like its absence, and what happens in the negative
space created by its void, or its loss. But we are discussing "one big book" this time -- and a slight
variant in the usual columnar construction. Besides, how often do we get to reference the exact title of
a Patty Griffin song? One ably covered by Emmylou Harris?
So, perhaps, if not "one big love," then one big book this time -- and no "Recent Books of Interest" in the sidebar. Why?
Well, Rick and I have been doing this column awhile now (as with all things that become part of the shape
and contours of your life, the amount of time we've been shaping/contouring here is already surprising), and
it's a labor of love. Which is to say, we do it for the joy of reading the stuff that comes our way, and then
writing it up in between the other writing we do by way of actual ostensible "jobs."
In addition, as careful readers of the column know, I'm also a single dad, sharing custody of two rather
marvelous boys with an ex. What does that have to do with comics? Well, sometimes, depending when my
middle-of-the-month turn falls here, I'm scrambling to read up by deadline time, balancing other
work -- my book writing and journalism -- with dad stuff (I'm writing this late at night after coming home
from a "college orientation" night at eldest's high school). So I can be racing through fast reads when
that deadline looms, in order to fill up the sidebar.
Not that I don't enjoy it -- it's just that I don't always get to savor it. And so, with another deadline
looming in the midst of amped-up article deadlines here in L.A. (what with award shows insistently needing
to be covered, in the midst of the massively eccentric orbits that define 21st century rhythms), I picked
up Jeff Lemire's collected Essex County, from Top Shelf Productions.
I'd like to read this, I thought, a few days back, eyeing the nearly 500-page collection. But I'll never have
time to -- not that, and two other books, in between everything else. And then another thought struck
me: Well then, I won't read anything else. I'll savor this.
And I'm glad I did. Lemire writes of his spare Canadian county, and its history, as told in a couple lines
of its descendants -- like Faulkner and Mississippi, except perhaps less emotionally perfervid, while, in its
way, equally repressed.
The tales -- three graphic novels collected here, along with the usual "director's cut" extras found in
such collections -- tell of two lines, those of the Lebeuf clan, and the Byrnes. That we don't see a family
tree that spells out the relationships 'til the end shows the skill that Lemire amasses with each volume.
In installments two and three, especially, we're left to sort out the flashbacks, flashfowards, and
fantasy sequences, sometimes cutting between forebears and descendants who look nearly alike (he has a
hallmark "square nose" feature in his able caricaturist's repertoire).
We have to make sense of the emotional terrain ourselves, the causes and effects of grief, of promises
broken -- or dashed by fate -- and from piecing together "cause" and then "effect" we finally develop a
timeline of when and how these small epiphanies and (mostly) betrayals happened.
And how they left the survivors in their wake.
The multi-generational saga (the Faulkner thing again) spans most of the 20th century, and takes in
comics (and quite wonderfully, comics-within-comics, as one of the protagonists draws his own as a child),
farm life, and hockey.
As a baseball and football fan -- and basketball come playoff time -- hockey is the "major" team sport (here
in America I mean, for you soccer and rugby fans) that I understand least well. Certainly in terms of whatever
emotional resonance it might hold for its fans.
But Lemire here gives the game a nearly mythic weight that I had almost entirely reserved for baseball,
replete with minor league dreams, and the illusory, seductive metaphor -- common to all sports really,
and always fleeting -- that life can be "prevailed" upon. Rather than, of course, life prevailing upon you.
It is, ultimately, a "quiet saga" -- there is no single revelation at the end (other than that family
tree, but by then, you've nearly figured it out), no incident providing final relief for the
survivors. There is only a crow -- a Trickster figure, to be sure -- who is perhaps, immortal.
And if not immortal, at least, recurring, like the heavy inked lines and shadows in Lemire's black-and-white
panels. And like the sorrows and gulfs between the characters.
I don't know if it's a wise book, since that would imply the imparting of wisdom. One of the tensions in the
book is whether people learn anything at all, really. Or whether wounds always get the better of us.
Lemire has no easy answers. Which perhaps makes the book wise in its own way, after all.
Check it out. Even if you think you don't have the time.
More next time. And heck -- I'll do some more reading.