Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #355: Loverboys by Gilbert Hernandez

Many of Gilbert Hernandez's best stories and most characteristic work are about connections that aren't made, things that don't quite happen, and relationships that drift away until they stop entirely. And he tells those stories quietly, from an omniscient, relentless point of view, that sees everything but doesn't deign to show it all to the reader. That these stories are full of events and characters can mask the fact that the most important events are inside these characters' heads, and Hernandez will never explain those events, or even necessarily let us know when they happen.

So Hernandez's characters rarely tell us their motivation, or show it clearly: we see what they do, and we can guess why, but it will always be a guess. And in his shorter, standalone works, where we don't have a deep well of knowledge of those characters to draw on, that can make things even more enigmatic or disconnected, as we watch people we only barely know do things for reasons we can only speculate about.

Loverboys is that kind of story: it's set in a small town -- probably one of the inland, semi-industrial towns of Southern California, but not necessarily -- but it has a large cast for its eighty pages: about a dozen important people, all of whom have unclear motivations and needs and desires. Hernandez clearly knows this is a large cast for the length of story, since he explains/lampshades it on the first pages, where a girl is asking how many people live in this town. Six hundred and seventy-seven is the answer -- and so Hernandez implies we should see how radically he's simplifying the town to show it to us in only ten or fifteen characters.

Central to this story is Rocky, an attractive young man who's having affairs with both his female boss and Mrs. Paz, an older woman who was his occasional substitute teacher twenty years before and soon becomes the teacher of his much younger sister Daniela. Mrs. Paz also watches Daniela for the middle of the book, as Rocky takes a long trip, supposedly for business, with that boss. Loverboys is a story about who loves who, and how much, and who doesn't love who, with a little bit of who's having sex with who (though not as much as the cover might imply to readers of Hernandez's old Birdland comic). It all circles around Rocky and Daniela and Mrs. Paz, though Rocky is mostly a cipher or a plot device -- he's always calm and detached, so we don't understand him the way we come to understand Daniela and Mrs. Paz.

Loverboys is quick and not entirely satisfying; it has an enigmatic supernatural element that never came into focus for me and an ending that asserts motivation for several characters -- or, rather, has other characters accuse them of those motivations -- which feels like a rushed attempt at closure. The town of Lagrimas is not Palomar; we don't have hundreds of pages of history with these people. And so they walk on stage, act out this one story, and then leave, still mostly strangers. They are intriguing strangers, certainly, full of life and passion, but they leave so quickly we're left wondering who they really are.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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