Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 19 News List

The bittersweet symphony of family life

Cult graphic artist Alison Bechdel tells a meaty tale of homosexuality, suspected suicide and unspoken family history in her memoir `Fun Home'

By George Gene Gustines  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
By Alison Bechdel
232 pages
Houghton Mifflin

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is an engrossing memoir that does the graphic novel format proud. The tale -- about Bechdel's childhood, her father's death and their shared homosexuality -- is painfully honest and richly detailed in words and images.

At its heart Fun Home captures Bechdel yearning to connect with her father, Bruce Allen Bechdel. In the opening chapter, Old Father, Old Artificer, parent and child are playing a game of "airplane" that ends almost as soon as it begins. The sight of a filthy rug and loose molding ends the brief lull from her father's obsessive restoration of the family's Victorian home.

Her father "could spin garbage into gold" and "cultivate the barren yard into a lush, flowering landscape," Bechdel writes and draws, but he was so emotionally distant that, even before his death, she "ached as if he were already gone."

With the dramatic personae established, the subsequent chapters depict pivotal events in the family's history. Along the way we learn that Bruce Allen Bechdel was a part-time English teacher and a third-generation funeral director. (Fun Home is what the children called the building where he practiced his trade.)

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- growing up around the rituals of mourning, Bechdel recalls the stunted reaction to her father's death: "Dry-eyed and sheepish, my brothers and I looked for as long as we sensed it was appropriate. If only they made smelling salts to induce grief-stricken swoons, rather than snap you out of them."

The death was deemed an accident -- a truck hit him as he crossed a road with an armful of garden brush -- but Bechdel suspects suicide. The timeline she supplies makes a reasonable case. Four months before the fatal day she informed her parents that she was a lesbian. Her mother countered with news about her husband's affairs with men. Two weeks before Bechdel's death, his wife asked for a divorce. "If I had not felt compelled to share my little sexual discovery," Bechdel writes, "perhaps the semi would have passed without incident."

There are some feelings of guilt in that statement, but also a grasp at connection. Where father and daughter had the strongest relationship was in books, whether in discussing them or using them as tools of seduction. Her father invited his "more promising high school students" -- the muscular, male ones, it seems -- to visit his home to

borrow copies of great American novels like The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. Later, as part of her "dawning feminism," Bechdel recalls a private, erotic reading of James and the Giant Peach. The Bechdels are closest when she is the only student in his English class who does not seem consumed by lethargy.

Literature also plays a large role in Bechdel's self-discovery. "My realization at 19 that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing," she writes. That statement is part of an electric two-page sequence in which the author, after discovering books about gay people, takes the first tentative steps toward coming out.

Throughout the memoir, but most especially here, the magic of the graphic format emerges. Bechdel's qualms, trepidation and excitement emerge from the words and images working together. Somehow combining the two ingredients conveys more than either one could do alone.

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