By Jonathan Ames; illustrations by Dean Haspiel
136 pages. Vertigo. $19.99.
If ending up in a station wagon with a pudgy, dwarflike hag doesn’t make you want to quit drinking, what will? That is the kind of question, along with wondering how often a man can sink and rebound, that is raised by “The Alcoholic,” an engaging graphic novel written by Jonathan Ames and illustrated by Dean Haspiel.
The book chronicles the misadventures of Jonathan A., a New York writer who the back cover says bears only a “coincidental resemblance” to the author. Jonathan longs for emotional connection and often fills the void with copious amounts of booze. It begins in August 2001, when Jonathan finds himself — after a bender — in Asbury Park, N.J., with this diminutive “conquest” in a vehicle crammed with pets and belongings that seems to double as her home. She’s in the mood for one-night love, but all he can think is: How did I get here?
The answer begins in 1979, when Jonathan, a high school sophomore, discovered the magical effects of beer: “I didn’t care about the taste. I loved the way it made me feel. For the first time in my life, I felt cool. I had always thought I was ugly, but not that night.”
After that initial experience, Jonathan gets drunk every weekend for two years, with his best friend, Sal. But it’s not all fun, games and beer. One page captures the highs and lows: drinking lazily by a pond and hitting keg parties, juxtaposed with vomiting in the woods and blacking out in bed.
It should be noted, for the faint of heart or easily offended, that “The Alcoholic” is unflinching in its depiction of sexual situations and drug use. Some are comical, like Jonathan’s first attempts at intimacy (however fleeting), while others are disturbing, as when he wakes up in a garbage can, naked, after a cocaine-fueled night with a gay drug dealer.
An evening with a bottle of Southern Comfort and skin magazines leads to a sexual encounter with Sal that will echo throughout their lives. The morning after, neither is quite ready to discuss what happened. “It’ll be better with girls,” Sal eventually says, and Jonathan quickly agrees.
The scene is a testament to the superb work of Mr. Haspiel, who conveys, through the characters’ body language, their anguish and true feelings. The accompanying caption — “I didn’t know if what he said was true or not, but I pretended to agree with him. I was ashamed that I had liked it” — seems almost unnecessary.
But only almost. Throughout the book, the synthesis of words and images creates a rich portrait of Jonathan: from a whimsical, imagined photo-booth strip that shows the thinning of his hair from 1991 to 2001 to a stirring sequence in which Jonathan mourns his parents, who died in a car accident in the late 1980s. His thoughts seesaw from “You didn’t love them enough” to “imagining their horrible pain right at the end.”
Mr. Haspiel uses a split-panel view to show the writer at a bar with a cocktail and at home with a beer, his head down and his shoulders drooped. You can see and feel his despair.
Fortunately, Jonathan’s Great-Aunt Sadie, who lives in Queens, is in his corner. She suggests he travel to Paris, where she herself met a painter after her first marriage dissolved. (Mr. Haspiel deftly shifts from pen and ink to watercolors for panels that capture portraits of her from that time.) Sadie is a voice of reason and the provider of tough love.
In early 2000 Jonathan meets a girl, whom the author calls Manhattan, after the borough where she resides. The relationship goes well for nine months, until Manhattan moves to San Francisco. Like many naïve couples before them, they promise to try a long-distance relationship, but within a week she decides she needs a fresh start. Jonathan is crestfallen.
“You have to put a veneer over your heart,” Sadie says. “If I let myself feel all the pain of my life, I’d be dead a long time ago.”
Three months later Jonathan is still pining. (Sadie’s sage counsel? “She’s letting you know how she feels — she’s not in love with you. Get over it!”) Even after Manhattan moves to Seattle, he remains obsessed. In August 2001 she returns to New York. But when Jonathan goes to visit, bouquet of flowers in hand, he finds her with a new boyfriend.
“I ducked into the first available door so as not to be seen,” he recalls. Unluckily for him, that first door is the entrance to a bar, where he weakens and has his first drink since his parents’ death in the ’80s. Eventually, he ends up at that watering hole in Asbury Park, where he meets the lusty crone from the novel’s opening. But even finding himself in that awkward sexual situation is not enough to deter Jonathan, who goes on another drinking spree and ends up with irritable bowel syndrome, still longing for Manhattan.
“Even though she’s making my stomach explode, I still want to marry her,” he tells Sadie.
She responds: “You can marry her if you want to wear a diaper the rest of your life! I love you but I’m hanging up!”
The next few weeks are a blur of book readings, sad news about Sal and of course Sept. 11. Jonathan’s drug use escalates to a point that makes his old days of pornography and Southern Comfort seem quaint. A two-day binge of heroin has terrible consequences when Sadie is unable to reach Jonathan after she has a serious fall. When he finally gets to the hospital, she has these pearls of wisdom for Jonathan: “Nobody gets everything they want.”
Jonathan is struck by the realizations that he no longer loves Manhattan and that he is unable to control himself around alcohol. Sadie’s advice becomes his mantra. He declares, on the penultimate page, “I will never drink again.” It’s a well-written scene of epiphany. And it makes the last page, with the writer standing uncertainly in front of a bar, all the more sadly powerful.