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