Sun, Oct 19, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Book Review: Some people change. Others just get wasted

‘The Alcoholic’ creates a rich portrait of the lows and highs of a man who bears only a ‘coincidental resemblance’ to the author

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

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If ending up in a station wagon with a pudgy, dwarflike hag doesn’t make you want to quit drinking, what will? That is the kind of question, along with wondering how often a man can sink and rebound, that is raised by The Alcoholic, an engaging graphic novel written by Jonathan Ames and illustrated by Dean Haspiel.

The book chronicles the misadventures of Jonathan A., a New York writer who the back cover says bears only a “coincidental resemblance” to the author. Jonathan longs for emotional connection and often fills the void with copious amounts of booze. It begins in August 2001, when Jonathan finds himself — after a bender — in Asbury Park, New Jersey, with this diminutive “conquest” in a vehicle crammed with pets and belongings that seems to double as her home. She’s in the mood for one-night love, but all he can think is: How did I get here?

The answer begins in 1979, when Jonathan, a high school sophomore, discovered the magical effects of beer: “I didn’t care about the taste. I loved the way it made me feel. For the first time in my life, I felt cool. I had always thought I was ugly, but not that night.”

After that initial experience, Jonathan gets drunk every weekend for two years, with his best friend, Sal. But it’s not all fun, games and beer. One page captures the highs and lows: drinking lazily by a pond and hitting keg parties, juxtaposed with vomiting in the woods and blacking out in bed.

It should be noted, for the faint of heart or easily offended, that The Alcoholic is unflinching in its depiction of sexual situations and drug use. Some are comical, like Jonathan’s first attempts at intimacy (however fleeting), while others are disturbing, as when he wakes up in a garbage can, naked, after a cocaine-fueled night with a gay drug dealer.

An evening with a bottle of Southern Comfort and skin magazines leads to a sexual encounter with Sal that will echo throughout their lives. The morning after, neither is quite ready to discuss what happened. “It’ll be better with girls,” Sal eventually says, and Jonathan quickly agrees.

The scene is a testament to the superb work of Haspiel, who conveys, through the characters’ body language, their anguish and true feelings. The accompanying caption — “I didn’t know if what he said was true or not, but I pretended to agree with him. I was ashamed that I had liked it” — seems almost unnecessary.

But only almost. Throughout the book, the synthesis of words and images creates a rich portrait of Jonathan: from a whimsical, imagined photo-booth strip that shows the thinning of his hair from 1991 to 2001 to a stirring sequence in which Jonathan mourns his parents, who died in a car accident in the late 1980s. His thoughts seesaw from “You didn’t love them enough” to “imagining their horrible pain right at the end.”

Haspiel uses a split-panel view to show the writer at a bar with a cocktail and at home with a beer, his head down and his shoulders drooped. You can see and feel his despair.

Fortunately, Jonathan’s Great-Aunt Sadie, who lives in Queens, is in his corner. She suggests he travel to Paris, where she herself met a painter after her first marriage dissolved. (Haspiel deftly shifts from pen and ink to watercolors for panels that capture portraits of her from that time.) Sadie is a voice of reason and the provider of tough love.

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