Lynda Barry is a find—and the only comic strip artist who has made me laugh and squirm at the same time. She’s in her late twenties and lives in Seattle. Her stuff has been popping up over the last few years in Chicago’s Reader, Seattle’s Rocket, and the L.A. Reader. Her work, filled with working-class men and women and adolescents of all sorts (perhaps because she sees both workers and teenagers as experiencing life as a series of humiliations), is a gleeful cross between George Grosz and True Romance—though given the way Barry crams her panels with endless asides, winks, barbs, and warnings, other influences may include Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets and breast enlargement ads.
In Barry’s world, terminal embarrassment alternates with shamelessness. Consider this, from the “What do I do once I SPOT HIM” section of the glorious Finding Your Perfect Love Mate: “Be yourself. Act natural. Let him do the work. If he leaves without speaking to you, follow him to his car and sit on the hood. Let him notice you.” In another strip, a man leaves his woman (she has served him his TV dinner cooked, not frozen, as he has demanded it—a preference that pretty much sums up Barry’s men). The woman says, “Oh. He left without his jacket! Gosh—maybe I should bring it to him. I guess I should pack a lunch for him so he won’t be hungry when he looks for his new girlfriend.” Ms. Barry scribbles in the margin: “How many times has this happened to you?”
If you’ve ever gone to school, had a love affair, or changed your hairstyle, you’ll recognize yourself in this book. Unfortunately.
Murder and Money
→ Dutch Shea, Jr., by John Gregory Dunne (Linden/Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $16.50). Like Dunne’s last novel, True Confessions, this account of a bitter, doomed attorney’s attempt to come to grips with his life is both readable and a failure. Dialogue jumps, minor characters snap into focus, jokes work both as jokes and as talk. But a submerged plot—which one may barely have followed—takes over, and it’s so jerry-built, so much a Ross MacDonald rabbit pulled out of Dunne’s hat, that it doesn’t make sense of the tension that drives the first half of the book, it smothers it. The resultant descent (or lowering) of the dark night of the soul seems depressingly inevitable: less Dunne’s idea of how Dutch Shea, Jr.’s life has to end than Dunne’s idea of how novels have to end.
→ The Book of Sushi, by Kinjiro Comae and Yuzuru Tachibana (Kodansha, 127 pages, $15.50). How to do it, what to do it with, and, thanks to numerous gorgeous color photos, why to do it. Plus a special treat for Donner Party fans: “The key to sushi is freshness,” Jean-Pierre Rampal writes in his introduction, “but how fresh is fresh?… in Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido, I’ve been served fish alive. The fish is like a small tuna with firm flesh. After cutting a thin fillet off the fish, the chef puts it back in the tank. It was a little difficult for me to eat while the fish was staring back at me from the tank. It didn’t die… I came to feel that for a person who really loves fresh fish, the assurance of such absolute freshness strikes a sensible note and adds a certain pleasure to dining.” So if you were wondering about the next craze…
→ Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith (Ballantine, 433 pages, $3.95 paper). Likely responding to the path of some minor comet, the reviewing media regularly submit to a collective hysteria, and this whodunit set in exotic Moscow has been the most recent beneficiary. Time said it was “a signal for rejoicing”; The New Yorker said it could “reel the mind”; Playboy said it was “the best novel” of 1981; and Penthouse said it was “the most extraordinary overview of Soviet Russia since Dr. Zhivago.” California Magazine says it’s “dull.”
→ Who Killed Sal Mineo?, by Susan Braudy (Wyndham, 320 pages, $14.95). Kind of begs the question—I mean, who cares? Especially when what we’re offered is a hoked-up detective story in which the author’s only hook is her attempt to convince us we’re reading a roman a clef?
→ The Hundred Headless Woman (La femme cent tetes), by Max Ernst (Braziller, 325 pages, $30; $14.95 paper). A first-rate reissue of Ernst’s spectacular, disturbing collage novel (originally published in Paris in 1929), one of the most convincing definitions of surrealism: the boundaries between sleeping and waking are blown up. I mentioned my confusion about the apparent mistranslation of the title to a multilingual friend (where was the reference to “headless” in the French?). She explained that Ernst’s title was a pun, cent being almost identical in pronunciation to sans. It’s a readiness for such connections that one must bring to this book—or take away from it.
→ Greed Is Not Enough: Reaganomics, by Robert Lekachman (Pantheon, 213 pages, $13.50). Glibness is not enough, either. But speaking of greed…
→ Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times, written and drawn by Carl Barks; edited by Edward Summer (Celestial Arts, 376 pages, $159.95). Horrendous price, somewhat washed-out color, and the inclusion of a few inferior tales aside, this big, superdeluxe, lovingly annotated limited edition is the closest a publisher has come to the collection Scrooge fanatics have dreamed of since the 1950s. (Abbeville Press put out a botched anthology in 1979; many Scrooge classics remain available in cheap, one- or two-story reprints.) Life and Times is graced by Barks’s masterpieces, both hard to find: “Tralla La,” in which Scrooge inadvertently corrupts a moneyless paradise with a gleaming bottle cap, and “The Lemming With the Locket,” which is beyond description. “These comics are one of the few things you can point to that say: like it or not, this is what America is,” writes George Lucas in his notes to the book. He does not mention that, not many pages later, the reader will discover that the great opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark—in which Indiana Jones enters an ancient temple, removes an idol from its pedestal, and thus triggers a 1,000-year-old mechanism that sends a huge stone ball crashing down upon him—is a direct steal from Scrooge’s adventures in “The Seven Cities of Cibola.” Which is just as it should be—but did Carl Barks get points on the picture?
California, April 1982