God damn, this book was depressing. Not because anything horrible happens. I mean, I didn’t really cry, but I just kind of felt like killing myself afterwards. Because it’s a book imbued with as little hope as possible. Even Byars’ other book I’ve reviewed (The Pinballs
), which was about a more depressing subject, actually ended on a little bit of a positive note. Things were looking up for the foster kids, right? Not in The Cartoonist.
Life just goes on, sucky as always. I’m not trying to say I hated this book, because I didn’t.
Alfie lives in Morgantown, WV with his mother, sister Alma, and Grandfather (Pap). Alfie’s dad died several years ago and his older brother Bubba is a now-adult former juvenile delinquent, who lives in nearby Maidville with a new wife. Alfie generally cares only about one thing: drawing comic strips. He’s a budding artist with an eye for the absurd things in life which he brings to life in his cartoons. The house the family lives in is small, only two bedrooms, so Alfie has taken over the attic as his studio.
It’s up in this attic that Alfie feels the happiest. Away from his perenially unemployed, couch potato mother. Away from Pap, who does nothing but complain about the Government (unless he’s getting his social security check, natch) and generally hiding because his only ally in the family, Alma, does her best to stay away as much as she can. In flashbacks, we get a sense of how life was even worse for Alfie when Bubba lived at home. Bubba was their mother’s favorite, and no matter how many cars he stole or how many smaller kids he bullied, she’d never make Bubba take responsibility. Bubba had been the star quarterback at his high school and narrowly missed an opportunity to play for WVU.
One day Alfie learns that Bubba and his pregnant wife are moving back into the house after Bubba got fired from his job at the service station. Mom is kicking Alfie out of the attic to set it up for Bubba and Maureen. Alfie, feeling desperate and misunderstood, locks himself in the attic and refuses to come down, refuses to even talk to anyone in the family. He sits, staring straight ahead, refusing to look at his comic strips that line the walls and becomes nearly catatonic.
Nothing will get Alfie down. Alma tries talking with him, about accepting their lot with a mother like theirs and reminds Alfie of the time their mother robbed her piggy bank to bail out Bubba. After two days locked in the attic, mom comes home with the news that Bubba and his wife are actually going to move in with her parents instead. Mom is furious that they’re choosing the wife’s parents over her house, and is furious that she just put a down payment on a used bed (*shudders*) for them which she can’t get back.
Upon hearing this news, Alfie doesn’t immediately run down from the attic. Instead he stays up there and reflects and re-reads some of his comic strips as he takes them down from the wall, leaving the attic space blank. And as he descends the ladder to eat dinner with his family, another idea for a comic enters his brain.
In the first square, a man would be suspended over the world in a balloon. He’d be saying, “Nobody can make me come down!”
In the second square he’d be saying, “Nobody can make me come down!”
In the third square he’d be saying, “Nobody can make me come down!”
In the last square he’d by saying, “But somebody could try.”
And that’s it. Seriously, that is how the book ends. See what I mean? Bleak and depressing.
- We can add Alfie’s mother to the list of seriously terrible fucking Y.A. parents.
- And speaking of Alfie’s mother. This is who I pictured.
- The stereotyping of poor white trash kind of bothers me. Maybe it’s because I know several people who live in West Virginia, and trash like Alfie’s mom just isn’t what comes to mind when I think of that state. Then again, I did grow up in a rural area with plenty of trash…..and Betsy Byars kinda got it right.
- I don’t even see what Alfie sees in his best friend, the impossibly nicknamed, Tree. Tree is just annoying and makes Alfie feel bad for drawing cartoons.
- I know it’s fiction. But I still hope Alfie got out of that house, got out of that town, went to college and became a cartoonist. But I don’t see who would possibly encourage him to do that. Even Alma, who is kind to Alfie, basically thinks they just have to accept their lot in life.
- Even writing this post has been depressing.