Friday, July 07, 2017

Troop 142 by Mike Dawson

I have a son who is a Boy Scout. If all goes well, he should get his Eagle project done this coming fall and top out as a scout by the end of that school year. So I do have some interest -- mostly secondhand, comfortably from an armchair far, far away from a grubby tent in the woods -- in the doings of those boys and their knot-tying and various other crafts.

I'm also something of a interested observer to the career of fellow New Jerseyan and cartoonist Mike Dawson, who made a splash about a decade ago with Freddie and Me and has since become more pointedly political, with short strips published places like The Nib and collected last year in Rules for Dating My Daughter. Somewhere in the middle there -- 2011, actually -- he made the book Troop 142, about one troop of New Jersey scouts at camp, based or informed by what seems to have been his own experience as a New Jersey Boy Scout from 1988 through 1994. (The book is set in 1995.)

Troop 142's viewpoint centers on a father who doesn't entirely fit into these very boyish boys and their regular-guy dads, but are camping with them at Lenape camp site (Boy Scouts are obsessive about "Indian" stuff, mostly by appropriating names) at the fictional Pinewood Forest Boy Scout Camp. (I won't claim to know every camp in New Jersey, but I've heard of everything within a three-hour driving distance and helped my son set up and break down camp in all of those over the years.)

But that man is only a loose focus: Troop 142 is about all of the boys. The three older boys who take LSD and dare each other to do stupid things. Our viewpoint guy's younger son, at camp for the first time with his best friend, both of them very unsure about the whole thing. The two adult leaders, in particularly the guy I think is Scoutmaster, something of a hard-ass with a son who the whole troop hates and picks on.

Troop 142 has a lot of characters, and introduces them naturalistically. Too much so for me, actually: I felt it needed a two-page spread to show the whole group and give them all names, so I could remember who that kid was, who were his friends, and if one of the adults was his dad or not. For a story that wandering through and around a cast of about twenty people, it's important to be clear who they all are -- and, since they're all male, mostly around the same age, all wearing basically the same clothes, and drawn in black-and-white, Dawson doesn't have as many tools to differentiate them here as another creator might. (And that's why I don't have the viewpoint character's name here: if it's in the book, I couldn't find it. His sons call him Dad, and I didn't see anyone else directly addressing him.)

Look: I like Dawson's cartooning, and I'm interested in the stories he wants to tell. But I hate camping, and Troop 142 felt unlike the Scouting I know: maybe the Troop my son belongs to is better-managed, or maybe Dawson was just making fiction and so needed more drama. So I wasn't as excited by this book as I wanted to be. On the other hand, I probably knew that would be my reaction: that's why it took me six years to get to this book.

It's true about any work of art: the closer you are to the world it depicts, the more critical you are. I live in New Jersey and have a Boy Scout son, so I'm quite close to this. And I still enjoyed it, at the same time I was very glad I was no longer a teenage boy.

No comments:

Post a Comment