Smart novel about comic-strip artist draws read­ers back to the colour­ful ’80s

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Deb­bie Pat­ter­son

LEE Hen­der­son fol­lows up his crit­i­cally ac­claimed first novel, The Man Game, with a high-en­ergy, de­li­ciously smart new book. Set in the early ’80s, The Road Nar­rows As You Go slam-dances in the ethos of that era — reck­less am­bi­tion, un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism and the amoral pur­suit of sat­is­fac­tion — while it skirts the shadow of AIDS. Hav­ing aban­doned her home in Vic­to­ria, B.C., and rein­vented her­self as Wendy Ash­bub­ble, our spunky pro­tag­o­nist desperately wants to live the Amer­i­can Dream. When Frank Fleecen, the toupée­s­port­ing, filthy-rich in­ven­tor of the junk bond, of­fers to invest in her comic strip, promis­ing ag­gres­sive mer­chan­dis­ing and a ten­fold in­crease in her sub­scrip­tions, she leaps into bed with him. The story of Wendy Ash­bub­ble’s me­te­oric rise to comic-strip star­dom is told to us by her four as­sis­tants, Rachael, Mark, Pa­trick and Twyla, each artists in their own right. The col­lab­o­ra­tive na­ture of the sto­ry­telling draws us into the col­lab­o­ra­tive na­ture of their work. They all live at No Manors, an artists’ com­mune set in a not-so-grace­fully ag­ing five­storeys Ed­war­dian villa atop a steep hill in San Francisco along with Biz Aziz, a six-foot tall bearded drag-queen, and a ro­tat­ing roster of artists and freaks. No Manors is a hub for the comic-artist com­mu­ni­tyc due to the 42-foot-long drawingin ta­ble and gen­er­ous open-door pol­icy ofo the found­ing fa­ther of the place: Hick Elm­dale, the wildly tal­ented ghost artist be­hind the popular Peter Pan comic strip, cred­ited to Walt Dis­ney. Though we meet Hick just once, in his hos­pi­tal bed dy­ing of some mys­te­ri­ous “gay plague,” his in­flu­ence over the denizens No Manors is im­mor­tal. His wake fea­tures a who’s who of the funny pages — Charles Schultz, Dik Browne, Cathy Guise­wite, Mort Walker — in­dulging in top-qual­ity weed and play­ing draw­ing games. The wake also in­tro­duces us to enig­matic Jon­jay, who ap­pears as mys­te­ri­ously as he dis­ap­pears. The eter­nally youth­ful ma­gi­cian artist, Jon­jay leads the guests in an an­cient rit­ual-can­ni­bal­ism com­mu­nion, the truth of which is never dis­closed. Though the open­ing of The Road Nar­rows as You Go skips along at a dizzy­ing pace, it bogs down a bit in the sec­ond quar­ter, when the finer de­tails of comic art and fi­nan­cial mar­kets are fleshed out. We are, how­ever, re­warded with an op­por­tu­nity to reac­quaint our­selves with Reaganomics and the dis­as­trous fall out of the dereg­u­la­tion of the mar­ket, as well as with a trea­tise on Garfield the cat as a por­trait of ’80s Amer­ica: en­ti­tled, in­dif­fer­ent and drawn with a mass-pro­duced per­fec­tion. But soon enough, the story again picks up speed: we’re in Death Val­ley, we’re in New York, we’re fly­ing around the world on a pri­vate jet, ink­ing deals, hav­ing lunch with the pres­i­dent him­self and spend­ing like a sailor. The Road Nar­rows As You Go is truly a fab­u­lous read, but it is the con­clu­sion that lifts this work to a whole other level. It doesn’t so much end as it re­veals it­self — beau­ti­fully, en­tirely — in the fi­nal breathtaking, heart­break­ing mo­ment. Deb­bie Pat­ter­son is a play­wright,

di­rec­tor and per­former.

The Road Nar­rows As

You Go

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