Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #270: Come Again by Nate Powell

The cliche is that the happiest-looking people have the darkest secrets. I don't know if that's consistently true in real life -- how would you design a study to test that, anyway? -- but it's a surefire winner in fiction, where contrast and irony are the go-to tools.

Nate Powell's new graphic novel Come Again is about the secrets in a seemingly idyllic group of hippies on an Arkansas Ozark hill. Haven Station is where they live, an "intentional community" eight years into its life in 1979. They farm and garden and live off the land -- what the land mostly provides is marijuana, but don't say that too loudly.

Two couples were among the first to join up back in 1971; four young friends who had known each other since childhood: Haluska and Gus, Whitney and Adrian. Since then, they each had a son -- Haluska and Gus's Jacob, Whitney and Adrian's Shane. Gus left Haluska, a year or so back, and went "downhill" to the local town, back to straight society and normal life. It looks like it was the usual kind of breakup, and they're friendly with each other, still, for Jacob's sake and because this is a small, isolated area and you can't get too far away from each other.

Gus did not leave Haluska because she's been having an affair with Adrian. He doesn't know that. No one knows that.

But they have: they've been sneaking away together since at least 1971, since before they joined Haven Station. And Haluska is our central character here, the one who will have to confront those long-held secrets and those years of lying.

(I'm happy that the book focuses on a woman: we need more of that. I'm not as happy about how Come Again settles all of the weight of responsibility for this affair on her shoulders, letting Adrian stay vague and personable. He's just as responsible, just as complicit, just as central, just as lying. And centering the story on her can look like slut-shaming from a lot of perspectives: that the woman bears the price for infidelity, and is the one who has to make everything right, because she's the one who controls sexuality and child-rearing. It's not a fatal flaw, but it's noticeable. And that conception  -- that this all is Haluska's responsibility -- is central to Come Again.)

Powell's books often have supernatural underpinnings, particularly the magisterial Swallow Me Whole. Come Again follows in that tradition, but, as before, it's nothing you've seen before, nothing with a name. On that Ozark hillside, there's a door, which leads into some rooms and caverns. In that space -- maybe also elsewhere; maybe everywhere -- is an entity, a voice in the darkness that is sometimes quiet and half-forgotten and sometimes is demanding, feeding on secrets.

That set of caverns, of course, is where Haluska and Adrian run away to have sex together. We see them do so near the beginning of this book; we think they may have been doing this, off and on, every day or week or month for eight years or more. That's a lot of secrets.

Most of Come Again take place over a couple of days. It's Haluska and Adrian's turn to take the farm's produce -- again, with the pot hidden under the table but the real draw for their customers -- down to a farmer's market in town. Meanwhile, Jacob and Shane, the two boys of these two couples, are out wandering around like boys do.

They find the door. They enter the caves. They go too far.

Meanwhile, Haluska and Adrian come back from town, in the middle of a fight. They break up, for what might be forever. They won't need that door anymore, and prove it to each other.

But a boy is lost. And when he's not found, he quickly drops out of memory -- as if no one, except one person, can hold on to the secret of his existence.

And who cares most about secrets in this place?

Come Again has gorgeous, brilliant pages, equal parts seeped in the darkness of night secrets and dark caves and shot through with the glow of a late-summer day. Powell has some neat tricks with lettering as well, to show secrets and forgetfulness, to hint at the power of that strange voice underground.

I didn't love Come Again as much as Swallow Me Whole, in part because of the embedded sexism of Haluska, in part because I don't quite buy the logic of the supernatural deal at the end. But it's a strong work, well-written and powerfully imagined and brilliantly drawn. And Powell is one of our very best comics storytellers in the modern world.

Don't let my minor misgivings keep you away: this is a major book by a major creator, and if you're not familiar with Powell, you've got a lot of great work ahead of you.

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