Detour to Prose Valley

I encountered Hoobastank’s “The Reasontwice on my drive to work today.  Bad omen, like crimson clouds at dawn.  I hope it does not upset the many adventures I have planned for the day.  I wish I had a review of a good comic ready to counteract the evil force of whiney Top-40 slop rock, but a review of a good prose book with a connection to comics will do just as well.

Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea by John C. Gallant and Seth
A slim, beautifully designed book, its fuzzy green and black cover depicting a lonely shore, far off in the distance.  It’s Prince Edward Island I suppose, since that’s the setting for most of John Gallant's short, potent childhood memoir.  Gallant’s son will prove far more familiar to readers, and may indeed be the sole reason behind checking the book out in the first place: Seth (birth name: Gregory Gallant), designer of Fantagraphics’ monstrous “Complete Peanuts” project, and creator of “Palooka-ville”, the comics series from which his collections “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” and “Clyde Fans: Book 1” (all of which are published by Drawn and Quarterly, along with the volume under consideration here) have derived.  Seth contributes a short comics introduction to this volume too, and provides the occasional illustration, but it’s the collection and presentation of his father’s notes that forms his main duty.

I say ‘notes’ not to take away from the book’s impact; it’s quite well written, with a good eye for expressive detail.  But structurally it really is a collection of short (often very short) reminisces, proceeding in semi-chronological order, mainly focusing on Gallant’s childhood of extreme poverty.  Seth notes in his introduction that the project was fueled by a desire to record the stories his father used to share with him in a more permanent format.  The final work succeeds in preserving the feel of oral presentation; the prose is highly conversational, the stories occasionally repeating details from one another, like each chapter is a separate, passing conversation we’ve been privileged to listen in on.

Seth mentions that he found the stories his father used to tell him exciting, and only later realized how sad they could be.  I suspect most readers of this book will be approaching it as adults, and the bleakness will be instantly evident.  There is hunger in these stories.  Danger.  Some of Gallant’s siblings die before their childhood is over.  And anger.  Anger at being given unpleasant tasks to do by virtue of being one of the older able-bodied children in his home, anger at the aloof and uncaring Church which has seized his devout mother’s soul, and anger at the very absurdity of being fathered into life itself by a man with no way (and seemingly little desire) to provide anything beyond the act of conception.  But this anger does not absorb Gallant; it drives him to find a better way of living.

And that’s what is most engaging about the book.  The eel hunting and berry picking and the rabbit traps and the homemade fishing poles.  The engagement with the land, which is the real provider here.  The story of Gallant’s ultimate escape is told quickly, almost as an afterthought, which much of the book’s short space is devoted to vignettes of business and amusement and the other elements of survival.  The impact is that the very existence of the book itself, and an author present to write it, acts as the story’s denouement.