Buzzed Books #69 by Joshua Begley
David Small’s Home After Dark
We often forget that growing up is a terrifying process. As adults, looking at children, all we can see is the amazing vistas of possibility. A child has the potential to be anything, and when you’re long past childhood, that plethora of potentiality is alluring, almost intoxicating, and we sometimes wish we could go back to that time, before we became locked into who we are now.
That point of view is part truth and part romantic fantasizing. For many children, the future is a terrifying prospect. It’s the terror of the unknown, the terror of having too many choices. The terror of going against parents, friends, and society to forge a new and different path.
This terror permeates David Small’s Home After Dark (Liveright, 2018). Set in the 1950s, the graphic novel follows Russel, a thirteen-year-old boy. After his mother runs away with his father’s best friend, Russel and his father travel to California to forge a new life.
At first, the plan is to stay with his Aunt June in Pasadena. For reasons unknown, June refuses to let them stay when they finally arrive. She tells Russel’s father that there are no jobs in Southern California, and he should head north. They end up in a small town called Marshfield and end up renting a room with the Mahs, a Chinese immigrant family who own a restaurant in Little China Harbor.
Things seem to pick up when Russel’s father finds a job teaching English at San Quentin penitentiary (“Teaching Shakespeare to the inmates, huh?”). He gets a G.I. loan and buys a house, and Russel settles in as best he can into this new life. What follows is a tale of increasing quiet desperation as Russel’s father grows more and more bitter with his life and situation, and Russel struggles to discover who he is and what he wants out of life. The compelling and sad truth to this story is neither of them truly discover the answers to those questions.
Again, it all comes back to the future and the potential it holds. Russel’s father thought going west would allow for him to carve out a better future, but he was wrong. Instead of an uplifting Horatio Alger story of pulling himself up by his bootstraps, Russel’s father self-sabotages himself at every turn. The comic never puts us in his head, because it’s all from Russel’s point of view, but there’s a real sense of a man trapped in a world not of his making, but still of his own design. The scars of the past and the coping mechanisms of the present give way to a systematic dismantling of the future, and the greater tragedy here is that Russel might well be on the same path.
Tied into all of this is the question of masculinity. Russel—a frightened boy whose life gets upended time and time again—doesn’t fit the cultural script of 1950s masculinity, and because of that, he’s perpetually bullied and his sexuality questioned. He even experiences a homosexual encounter with the first friend he makes, and immediately shuns the friend afterward. I’d like to tell you that at the end Russel discovers who he is, what he wants, and learns to stand on his own two feet, but this isn’t that type of story. Home After Dark poses questions and doesn’t provide any easy answers, and it’s all the stronger for it. Like Russel, like his father, like his friends, you have to discover your own truth and your own path. No one can do that for you.
Small employs a loose artistic style to tell this tale—more cartoony than photorealistic. The style works for the story, because it fits the narrative and overall premise. For the most part, the backgrounds aren’t filled in, save for a few specific images to anchor the pages, and the minimalist style for the characters helps Small define them in as few lines as possible. Small also uses a great deal of negative space and plays around with the gutters depending upon the emotional context of the page. It’s a style that, at first blush, looks simple and perhaps a little unsophisticated, but it’s actually nothing of the sort. Every line has purpose in this piece, and it’s one of the aspects that makes this such a compelling work of fiction.
The back cover of this work features a quote from the legendary Jules Feiffer, who compares this work to The Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye. While I can see that, I couldn’t help but think of The Outsiders more than those other two works. The main difference here is that I have no idea if Russel will “stay golden.” I’m not even sure that he was golden in the first place. I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that he goes on and finds himself, but that might just be wishful thinking on my part.
Joshua Begley (Episode 284) teaches Creative Writing at Full Sail University. He has been published in Ghost Parachute, The Cut-Thru Review, and in the anthology Other Orlandos. He also writes reviews for The Fandom Post and Inside Pulse.