Monday, February 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 19 (2/22) -- The Year of Loving Dangerously by Rall and Callejo

We all know that it's generally much easier for a woman to make a living -- or just ease her way through the world -- using the equipment between her legs than it is for a man to do the same. There are entire academic subjects -- some more psychological, others delving into the physiology -- explaining and arguing and explicating that big difference, not to mention the entire careers of a vast army of stand-up comedians. But, in man-bites-dog fashion, it's always more interesting when it happens the other way around. And that's why Ted Rall's story of the summer of 1984 is worthy of a graphic novel, even if those of us who happen to be men wonder if things happened quite the way he describes them, if anyone could be young and attractive and outgoing and vivacious enough -- even in that halcyon year, in the Babylon that is New York City -- to trade sex and companionship for a roof over his head consistently.

When 1984 began, Ted Rall was a junior in the engineering program at Columbia University, teetering on the edge of being expelled after a medical emergency caused him to miss finals the previous year and a nasty English professor flunked him along with an entire class. One low grade would see him kicked out -- and then that low grade hit. Since he lived in a Columbia dorm, he was also immediately homeless -- and he'd just lost his job, because of someone else's lie. He then went on a road trip with his best friend Chris, getting arrested for drug possession and having his money stolen by the cops. Suddenly, he had lost just about everything he had. (Of course, everyone at the bottom has a story of how failure is due to circumstances and other people's malice. And everyone at the top has a story of how success is entirely the result of hard work, determination, and intelligence.)

As Rall tells it, he was already a ladies' man by this point, with steady girlfriends occasionally but one-night stands frequently. And so he just upped that game, seeing a few girls a couple of times a week and relying on being invited home on other nights. (Going back to Ohio to live with his mother was never an option Rall could have stomached, and his divorced father apparently wouldn't have taken him in. And his friends seem mostly to have been other Columbia students living in dorms, which made it difficult to couch-surf with them once his student ID expired.)

So he survived, stitching together those one-night stands -- and some other semi-legal, or worse, schemes -- into a life until he managed to get a job as a trader trainee on Wall Street (with that friend, Chris), then saved up to rent a cheap apartment in a bad neighborhood (again with Chris -- occasionally life does have a simplified cast of characters, just like a movie).

As a "my time in hell" memoir, Year of Loving Dangerously is a bit thin -- Rall got through a season of uncertainty by having a lot of sex with mostly young, attractive New York women, which most of us would not consider a terrible hardship. But Rall does remember the hand-to-mouth feel of those days, and brings across the grasping calculation he felt about his relationships with women. The book ends soon after he gets that job and apartment; this isn't the story of how this experience changed the way Rall dealt with women for the rest of his life, or how it made him into the cartoonist/illustrator he became; it's just the story of this one point in his life. As such, it does have a tendency to come across as bragging. But Rall's dialogue and narration keep the story flowing, and Callejo (artist of Bluesman) draws a lot of very attractive women in and out of bed with the young Ted Rall. I still have the feeling that Rall is telling this story in a very slanted way -- that he's very carefully chosen how to present this time in his life to make himself look as glamorous and positive as possible -- but it's a very readable graphic memoir that will make all men close to Rall's age either remember their own youth fondly or wish fervently that they'd been more "active" back in the day.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Ingrid Michaelson - Die Alone
via FoxyTunes

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