Friday, December 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #362: Special Exits by Joyce Farmer

This book is a memoir. But I can't say how much "memoir" means "actually true."

Of course, that's the case for all memoirs, isn't it?

Special Exits takes place in the early '90s. Laura is our central character, a woman in her early 50s. She lives in Los Angeles, with her husband Art; their grown son Pete lives nearby. (Art and Pete are only minor characters.) Her father Lars lives in a slowly decaying house in South LA, in a neighborhood that probably was much more white and much "nicer" when he moved in five decades before. He lives there with his second wife, Rachel -- Laura's mother died when she was very young, and Rachel has been her stepmother nearly her whole life.

Lars and Rachel are around eighty: still in decent shape, all considered, but getting older. And things are getting harder and harder for them -- Lars is getting hard of hearing and Rachel eventually has vision problems, and they both have more and more trouble getting around. Special Exits is the story of their decline. There's only one way a book like this can end.

Special Exits is by cartoonist Joyce Farmer, who was born in 1938 and lives in the LA area. I think the word "memoir" here means that Laura's story is similar to Joyce's, and that she's transmuted her real life her into something cleaner to turn it into a story. Or maybe it's all word-for-word true, and she just changed the names. It doesn't really matter: Special Exits was true enough to Farmer that she called it a memoir, and so we readers should take it in the same spirit.

Farmer keeps the focus on Lars and Rachel most of the time -- Laura, the character based on her, is an occasional presence in their life, but the narrative spends as much time on the old couple without her as it does in the moments when she's there. Laura is not our window into their world: we're in that cluttered little house in need of repair in South LA with this couple.

Farmer is sparse with dates, but Special Exits seems to cover four or five years, starting about 1990 and ending in 1994. There are a few major events in the outside world as signposts, like the Rodney King riots and the death of Nixon, to show what year we're in. So the world is there, but it's not central: this is the story of a family, and even more so the story of one marriage, as seen from just outside of it. Lars and Rachel aren't saints -- they're grumpy and forgetful and lash out at each other -- but they clearly have a long, deep love, and they care about and for each other.

Laura is the outside observer, drawn back to her childhood home as her parents can do less and less for themselves and need more and more help. She does what she can, but it's always a matter of time -- for everyone in the world, always, it's only a matter of how much time.

Farmer tells this story naturalistically, in mostly short scenes arranged into a dozen chapters. There's a few flashbacks, but she's primarily telling the story of the last years of her parent's lives, not trying to sum up those lives. Lars and Rachel did more and were more than we see them in Special Exits, and we know that -- but who they were and what they did for these years is enough for one book.

Farmer's art is detailed and precise, with lots of little lines to define her world. She works in an eight-panel grid most of the time, with thin panel borders that disappear several times per page. It's an illustrative style without being fussy, giving Special Exits a down-to-earth, homey feel.

There are a lot of comics memoirs about parents, particularly about the ends of their lives, from Maus to Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Special Exits stands up well in that company: it has a particular story to tell about interesting, distinctive people, and Farmer tells and draws that story in an appealing, day-to-day manner.

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