Abandoned Cars considers the wreck of the American dream
Noir, be it film or fiction, is as American as street racing and serial killers. What could be more American than deceit, violence and sex? In noir, desperation is a contagious disease. We seldom identify with those who populate such stories unless it’s a cool, reserved Philip Marlow type. In fact, noir’s pleasures derive from our indifference toward its sad, gullible, often despicable characters. We find them fascinating, but screw ’em—we’d never make the same stupid mistakes.
Tim Lane’s dark collection of graphic short stories is full of such people. A sideshow of lost personalities, Abandoned Cars follows folks who’ve discarded the American dream and created their own nightmare. Set up like a sales pitch, the book’s end pages (the only color illustrations besides the cover) depict a gaggle of humanity at Coney Island swirling beneath signs for beer, cotton candy and hot sausage. The opening pages are a hard sell for “The Great American Mythological Drama” (“Big, Bold, Buoyant . . . The Dream Ride That Never Gets Old!”). Somehow that dream resembles a 1940 Chevy. A few pages inside, past the full-page portrait of Marlon Brando, a carnival barker continues the spiel, asking us to question the bearded lady and to keep our hats on. Then things really get strange.
The stories, sharply drawn in shades of black and white, mostly take place in barrooms, bedrooms, freight yards and behind the wheel of a car. Each is preluded by an installment of a sick, serial saga framed by wide black borders. To keep the comic mood, “American Cut-Out Collectibles” are interspersed among the stories. These snip-and-paste figures include Crazy Dude, Chuck Berry (old and young), Tai-Chi Larry, the Rockabillies and the Magnificent Old Time Grifter. Collect them all!
If you think this bit of comic-book camp keeps the darkness down, think again. The first story moves quickly past a fired carnival worker itching for a fight to an old guy shooting himself in the face, a mass murderer and a fatal car wreck. Subtlety may be in short supply, but gore is not. The tales that follow are considered, less violent and truer to (low) life. While noir fiction often turns on crime and its unraveling, these stories are more about alienation and its consequences. The drama in “The Great American Mythological Drama” occurs when the American Dream, dark and convoluted as any frustrated desire, runs head-on into real life. Then all hell breaks loose.
Abandoned Cars looks back some 60 years to the glory days of comic books, when violent, risqué crime and detective monthlies were thought to have a negative influence on young readers (see social critic David Hajdu’s recent The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America). Part pulp, part low art, comics have always been the perfect noir medium, and Lane continues that tradition. The look transcends time and space. Old-timers mix with longhairs. Big-finned Cadillacs; classic, muscular Camaros; and steam engines cross the pages. Elvis sings, Miles plays trumpet, and Tyrone Power tells Gene Tierney he wants to do more with his life than sell bonds. Forrest Gump is showing at the small-town theater. The look is retro, the circumstances contemporary, the dilemmas timeless.
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Three autobiographical sections titled “Spirit” give Lane time to muse while hopping freights and wandering across desolate rural landscapes. It’s there, in a full-page panel, he claims Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and others as inspiration. But the remaining 15 tales take on the tone and tenor of pulp heroes Jim Thompson (After Dark My Sweet), Harry Whittington (A Ticket to Hell), Charles Willeford (Cockfighter) and other authors whose tales of the desperate were published by Black Lizard press in its noir reissues of the 1980s. The last story is the most classic American noir tale of all, “The Story of Stagger Lee.”
Lane isn’t shy about calling up well-worn symbols of American drama. The book’s title may refer to the abandoned car left after a bloody accident, but it’s also a symbol of what’s left of the wreck of our dreams. Those Coney Island banners hawking pizza, kebabs and knishes as well as burgers and clams on the half-shell hang above a low-class crowd of varied ethnicities all lost in themselves. When Lane attempts to explain his mythological drama in prose, he loses focus. “Maybe articulating it is so difficult because the drama is so huge,” he surrenders. Then he redeems himself on the next two pages with the image of a swank Buick cruiser driven by a man in a fedora heading into the night. The quote beneath it from William T. Vollman reads, “I go my own bumbling way . . . until I am there.” It’s the perfect coda.
Abandoned Cars: Stories by Tim Lane; Fantagraphics Books; www.fantagraphics.com. Hardcover, 168 pages, $22.99.