Category Archives: stranger nonfiction

The Reliable Impressionist

5e95bed4b5ccd196b9db9dcbf19e7766“The shoes must always be polished front and back…or people will know what sort of person you are.” This mantra of concealment, complete with quotation-marks, is one of the inner watchwords of a main character in Marguerite Van Cook’s graphic memoir The Late Child, a thought that we see exposed in classic comic-balloon but which reveals nothing of the woman’s own identity, a forgotten handbook maxim laid over whatever she might really be thinking.

Words are well-chosen and imperative in Van Cook’s reminiscence, but not paramount; this is comics, a visual medium in which to show is the way to tell, and the schism between the story people carry and the picture they feel compelled to paint is central to this phenomenal achievement of personal exploration and empathetic biography.

The woman keeping her eyes cast to her feet is Van Cook’s mother Hetty, called before a tribunal in post-WWII Britain to judge whether she is fit to keep and raise her daughter, born out of wedlock. Hetty is a survivor of the blitz, the grand atrocities and private tragedies and strangely vibrant togetherness of which Van Cook’s text describes in its terrifying and surreally everyday detail, while portraying the tenacious exterior and personal trauma of its witnesses — “It was a duty to keep oneself up,” the psychological narration says in one scene where Hetty is resetting her hair as she walks through a firebombed neighborhood; “Just because everything was a mess, there was no reason she should look a fright.” After making an intimidating show of their authority, the panel does let Hetty keep Marguerite; surface is all-important, but the grown-up Marguerite’s purpose is to reclaim the interior.

We see her young self walking past and playing in bombsites that stay piled where they fell decades after the war; excavation is no small task. And we walk in many shoes that her remarkable emotional insight inhabits. A harrowing encounter with a would-be child molester is told half from his perspective, a marvel of empathy which also emphasizes the detachment from such a memory, and even identification with the predator, that survivors of such ordeals can experience. Van Cook, who painted over the astonishing ink drawings of artist James Romberger throughout, believes that much comic coloring forms a wall of solidity that cancels out the illusionism of drawing and pushes the reader out of the narrative; her skill in shifting the perspective of the book’s narrators — from her mom to herself to criminals and magistrates and even occasional birds and beasts who are in the landscape of semi-civilized humanity — keeps the reader viewing the story from a vantage point within it, and her coloring keeps all surfaces active and transparent, superbly defined in their spatial relationships and psychological keys, but expressive of the ephemerality of true sight and lived sensation.

Romberger’s style is a wonder of optical and dramatic economy, reminiscent of illustration in the leading modes of the mid-20th-century period the book portrays — loose and sketchy to convey the forward velocity and succinct sophistication of the West’s self-image, charming in its simplicity and assured in its catalogue of abbreviated emotions, encyclopedic in its observation of the abundant urban and country environments while ambitious in its formal experimentation and interpretive shadings. This book is an intimate epic of what was missed in one’s own family and personal memory, and Romberger has a sharp instinct for what to leave out — on a trip to the countryside, young Marguerite is shown walking into a monumentally framed rural scene on a trail that tracks into it from an otherwise empty column of white with some type; this sudden sensory overflow is mirror-imaged in some moments of the confrontation with the sexual predator, in which color and life abruptly drain out entirely; Romberger’s decisive black line allows Van Cook to play these keys perfectly.

Collaborators in art and partners in life, Van Cook and Romberger are conscious of where words can intrude rather than explain; the book orchestrates brilliant moments of the comic form’s components colliding, as when an intonation from a jurist overlays and utterly obscures Hetty’s face. Like the lurching historical span it takes place in, the book leaps forward between several stories of Hetty’s youth and Marguerite’s. Evolving from showing to telling, from English wartime hesitance to the self-revelation of a revolutionary era, Van Cook & Romberger depict, early on, a lovely painting that Hetty’s first husband had made of their garden (sent to her in lieu of censored battlefield correspondence); much later, we are not looking at but in the middle of such a feast of natural bounty, as Van Cook describes an endless continental meal on a teenage vacation to stay with friends in France. This is conjured in the lapidary language Van Cook’s poetic sense practices throughout, though as it draws on and on, it seems to morph into a satire of Proustian particularity. Young Marguerite and a girlfriend end up walking off the excessive feast and collapsing in a country church, hilariously heedless of any salvation, and return to the gathering joyously, but the undertow of much less happy concerns is never absent — not only in a parallel storyline of abandoned innocence that I won’t give away here, but also in the simple fact, as hard for us to remember at first as it may have been for Marguerite to notice, that she is only having all this fun with someone else’s family, in someone else’s world.

The undertow metaphor is not random; we see oceanic imagery from the start of the book onward, in the coastal town the characters originally inhabit, to the beaches Marguerite loves in both Britain and France, to a scene of lyrical horror when Hetty is waiting in the legal office and imagines the room filling up with water; Van Cook supplies the image of social suffocation, and Romberger portrays it with surf crashing against this strong, scared woman, an island of integrity and uncertain fortune, like the forgotten wartime legend of the nation that is now failing her.

Van Cook is a master of writing in displaced time, inhabiting the limited perspective of a moment in her life with utter vivid conviction while observing its meaning with the insight of contemporary context. Witnessing but not quite comprehending the student riots of France in 1968 and judging them unromantic, “we were the first to understand the profundity and meaning of pure love,” she writes of her and her teenage French best friend with the obliviousness of youthful discovery; not much later, in rejecting the manicured, arm’s-length world of the friend’s upscale parents, she says “we launched our senses out of childhood and demanded the right to touch,” a poet’s perspective on corners being turned that one doesn’t see the direction of at the time.

Van Cook’s most meaningful rebellions, as musical provocateur and artworld pioneer and literary prophet and patron of individuality (and Romberger’s blazing of paths in populist media and his artistic and scholarly role as a voice of political justice and cultural dignity) would come years after that, and The Late Child is a testament of the valued lives and essential insights that have a right to the years it will take for their time to come.

Lies, Damn Lies and Autobiography, Part 8: Good Reception


[This is the diary-entry version of the more objective eavesdropper-to-history essay I did on “Freedom” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1980) as part of’s “HERC Your Enthusiasm” series, all of which is worth reliving on multiple spins.]

“I hope you like boogie ’cuz that’s what we’re gonna be playing” — my host might as well have been intro-ing on the Furious Five records himself, and that was part of the point, since in those days the music was just something that spilled out to the street and onto some vinyl.

The rappers came from parties like the one I was walking into, in this case the wedding reception of one of my best highschool friends, midway through 1982. She and another crony each got married the minute we were out of school, and my reception-crawl between their separate ceremonies was a study in the many worlds that barricaded decade gave us chances to cross.

The playlist at the other wedding was mostly racism, guests of all ages bitching about The Blacks in the banquet-hall’s neighborhood like holdouts in some surrounded stockade. On the opposite side, in the suburban basement where I first heard “Freedom” (two years after it was a huge hit; I was stuck in that stockade too), all I heard were anthems to come-one-come-all community, welcomed warmly as one of maybe three whiteguys there (another of whom would soon be marrying the groom’s sister).

In a just-ending childhood in which the age-groups were as garrisoned as the races when it came to musical taste (and taste in other races), it was a revelation to witness seventysomethings grooving to the strange new pop-chant on the turntable; they were there to embrace the young and new in the next step they were taking, and accepting the Five on an open invitation.

Before we know what to call something we don’t know how to separate it, and hip-hop was a culture, not a style; you couldn’t not listen to the crews, but you also couldn’t not move to them, thus connecting with the breakdancing wing of the emerging culture, and at mid-rhyme when the Five start to flash their astrological signs, you couldn’t help but see a symbol, like the graffiti that filled out the trinity.

The song calls everyone to join in, “8 or 10 or…senior citizen,” “red, yellow, black, white or brown,” and if you enjoy yourself then you can “rock as good as anyone else.” Flash and the Furious Five didn’t know why anything they had heard or seen couldn’t be a part of them, and they a part of whoever was out there. That’s why across their canon you hear bits of other tunes, city-noise backup, street-barker rapping, R&B singing, and most importantly audience collaboration, very audible in the tide raising all spirits on this track.

The group would soon be bards of urban disaffection (but also poets of domestic concern) in “The Message” (in fact, were, by the time I ever heard their festive debut), in a decade that left millions dead of AIDS and drugs and dropped through the bottom of vanished safety-nets and left on the edge of superpower armageddon. And rap would get increasingly materialistic, and austere, and ingenious and indispensible. “Freedom” was the sound of the necessary elders who show up at the party just a century too soon.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6Part 7

Lies, Damn Lies and Autobiography, Part 7: Member of the Family


The passing of cheerful seasons is always hard on a kid — but think of what it does to a parent to witness this, and by “season” I mean Easter, which is around when our Christmas tree would finally be hauled to its last reward out of our living room. My mom, seeking to cushion our feelings, would reassure us that “the tree is going back to its mommy.”

At least the tree had at one point long before been a living thing, but my mom’s conception does connect to the way we invested spirits not just in this pagan remnant but in any object we’d established a close connection with, on an even continuum with the kids’ anthropomorphized dollies and the family’s esteemed pets.

Cars were really number one; we’d get those long after and keep them in service long past when they should’ve been shipped back to their mommy, driving them across whole deserts on the way to our west-coast relatives like a tauntaun we’d cut open and crawled into before making it cross the Hoth wasteland.

The one time we had a new car, briefly, I assumed it was a stolen vehicle; my dad splurged on payments for a then state-of-the-art station wagon with inconceivable Starship Enterprise extras like AC and pushbutton windows that went up and down and, upon motioning us into it where it was already idling in our apartment building’s carport one evening, I thought for sure it was a prank that was going to far and he’d just decided to hop us into a ride that was waiting there for someone else. At least that night I’d get to watch real-life cops at work rather than dad’s nightly crime dramatization. In fact there were no flashing lights that night though less exciting agents would relieve us of the car about two missed payments later.

More typically we would ditch our current car on a Philly or NYC sidestreet and, upon asking my dad if he’d locked it as we walked away, he’d say “If anyone breaks into this thing it’ll be to leave a donation.” Nonetheless, and maybe all the more, we were attached to these cars as long as they stooped to stay with us.  We’d give them names, like “The Green Bomb” for the finned, sea-green 1950s battleship we drove for about a week and could see the road go by out the bottom of. My mom had preferred Renaults, a sporty French compact marketed in America in the gas-sipping 1970s, and I believe called the red one “Peppy.”

Those cars were not just household names but a kind of rolling household itself, as my mom and us two kids would spend whole afternoons and evenings, together or on our own, in them. Once mom and we passed a whole rainstorm parked oustide the grocery store with nothing but the entire vanilla Captain Crunch cereal box we’d just bought before the clouds opened to ensure we’d make it through alive. Other times my sister and I would be left to crawl the walls and windshields as my mom left us idling in that same carport or similar parking lots for hours, occasionally interrupted by passersby who’d rap on the windows to ask if we still had parents or if we should at least be towed to a landfill to finish ripping up the car in context.

I would’ve gladly crawled into our bulky console stereos and almost could, their pre-microcircuit vastness containing a vinyl turntable and a slot for blocky 8-track cassettes as well as radio dials and room for your oversized old-school media and rich speaker arrays. It took up the size of a grown adult’s tanning bed to fit all this stuff in in those days, but it was too fun to lay in front of it and look at the colonnade of reconstituted wood lattice over those speakers, like some Busch Gardens miniature of a Moorish plaza. We didn’t name them, but, like era-defining leaders, stereos and TVs (from 12-inch black & white starter-drugs to Pong-enabled fatscreen backup generators) marked the ages of our economic fortunes and the stages of our progression through childhood and into the purchasable future.

Keepsakes and furnishings had similar spells on them; when we’d transplant some department-store heirloom of Mad Men-era upholstered geometry from one highrise apartment to the next creaking three-family I’d feel like I’d simply traveled through spacetime on the dimension-bridging couch; and other relics (the figural booze bottles that already looked like miniature people, the decades-layered melted multicolor candles) would be reinstalled like items on holy altars — literally in one case, as the centerpiece of each living room was a shrine my dad had fashioned from brick and tile, over which a gondola-like lamp cast its light and on which was set a bust of JFK, the only religious focal-point that ever lingered in our homes, and this too had a name, known with totemic simplicity and irreducible devotional truth as “The Kennedy Table.”

The vision of Pee-wee Herman conversing with every stick of furniture and tchotchke on the shelf made seamless sense by the time that show started airing; I’d been naming even my blankets since before I could say other words. When my parents were waiting for their space-age 1960s boomtime Newark, NJ apartment to be ready they titled the rooming house they had to chill in “Suicide Manor,” but after that we lived in too many different rentals to apply the more upscale pastime of naming the place-for-your-stuff like those who give away their mansions to history societies do. To this day I keep diligent lists of what my friends who actually have kids of their own could call them. As actual living things and members of some other family this often runs into some resistance. It’s always possible that the things you put a name to can have their own say.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6Part 8