Hopelessly American Print E-mail

20140612 114054(An Afterword to Rank 'N' File by John Abel, Summer 2014)

Exaggerate the essential, leave the obvious vague. —Vincent Van Gogh

I admit to struggling with a couple phrases while I tick-tock my way through John Daniel Abel’s latest sad and poignant collection of speaking images. (His previous marvel was The Last Word: Sixty-One American Epitaphs.) The phrases that trouble me are underclass and working-class. Why? Their sell-buy dates have passed. Anymore, such terms as the wealthy, the middle-class (the politicians’ fantasy), the nouveau riche, and other mass descriptors have lost definitional distinction. The problem is, cliché guarantees stereotype: ah, the poor—ignorant, opinionated, desperate, racist, self-abusive. You know the drill. But couldn’t those knee-jerk responses fit any “class”? Aren’t the 1% ignorant, opinionated, desperate, racist, self-abusive?

Here’s the rub: our so-called classes and their traits seem to collapse into each other. It’s like, I know you are but what am I? I’m not arguing that Americans are post-class and their categorical prejudices have flown the coop. If anything, income inequality is Old Glory’s nightmare from which, short of revolution, it’ll never wake up. I am saying that we need a finer way to grok our topsy-turvy notions about the have-nots, which the have-nots have created as much as anyone, and how we do that may be what Abel is attempting here. Let me explain.

All of poverty’s pathology is abuzz in Rank n’ File: self-abortion, child abuse (Abel’s folk detail, loathe, and justify it), self-annihilation trauma like boxing, crack, and drunkenness, post-Iraq-Afghanistan limb-loss and brain damage, racism, prostitution, crap-food diets, drug dealing, union-hating, homelessness, physical and mental disabilities, Wal-Mart slavery, anti-intellectualism, and Lord Jesus, only you can save my sorry ass.

But such subject matter, while predictably déclassé, that is, the Scarlet “D” of the fallen, is just the headline. And, if we look only at the headline (the disaster-porn and self-destruction media love), such a view may overwhelm the impact of Abel’s drawings, which alternately ennoble and tease his quarry’s sensitivities. The thing that strikes me in this book’s highly selective quotation and drawing is this mandala of emotion—outrage, blame, sadness, hatred, fury, shame—which power Abel’s characters with an intensity much greater than the words accomplish. Plus there’s a kind of shared labor in marrying word to image: Abel gets uncomfortably close to what’s eating them and him.

Here’s an example. A young girl, 12, on the graphic side of the two-page spread, is enraged, her clenched hands and elbows knifed in her side, and she’s screaming that rage out. Behind her sits the target, her mother, wedged between a couch past its prime and a table full of American treasures: hairdryer, cigarettes, 64-ounce soda bottle. Abel foreshortens mom’s legs, puts her in a black pullover, gives her hands to self-consciously twisting a braid of hair, all for the moment of her humiliation. “I do not consider myself a mean person. I am so ashamed of hitting my daughter now and do not excuse myself . . . but I thought later she is the only person in the world with less power than me, and that is why I did it. Pathetic, huh?”

This Mom is one of the few self-accountable souls in this book. Part of the point. More crucial, she bears the consequences of her actions. She can’t summer away from despair in the Hamptons or call the nanny. She’s part and parcel. She’s of a piece. It seems one thing eating Abel is his ability to grab his subjects by the lapels, at their worst, which is also their most alluring, and let ’em have it, enlarging moments so that we see—which they, for most part, don’t—that they’re trapped. Hopelessly.

Abel tosses this grenade from hand to hand throughout, which some gawkers may regard as glorified tsktsking. Look at/listen to the drawing of a woman who’s locked up for self-abortion and being an unfit mother, whose hand covers her face, and who says/writes, “Please keep any negative thoughts you may have to yourself.” Curiously, this is the opening spread. Abel then proceeds to undercut her request by not keeping his negative thoughts to himself, which mushroom into the farcical and the humorous as well, for the rest of the book.

My point is, Abel’s material is in your face. He wants you to confront the worst of the worst, the most beat-up of the beaten-up. He wants you to confront what he’s confronting and is conflicted by. He’s saturating us with an unblinkingly raw look at the beastliness of life as, I would bet, most of us don’t know it.

The common denominator is, of course, privilege, supposed and actual, that adheres to those who have money. Take it to the bank: All quoted and quartered graphically here despise wealth. Wealth, but not the wealthy. How come? The terminal irony is, the rich got theirs, no doubt, via luck or fraud or inheritance. Who cares how. Says the hoarder, I don’t want them to have less; I just want more. So the reasoning goes. And if there is any reasoning here it is ground up in the sociopathic Vitamix we call the Tea Party.

“I would rather eat shit than work for a God damed union. They pay thugs to beet the dews out of you and give the money to faggots who want to get married and niggers who want to rule over white people and other socialist giveaways.” Abel’s portrait of the woman who utters these words is frightening: bullet-headed and giraffe-necked with a saucer-eyed, astigmatic look of lunacy, her mouth like the backside of a bus. And we think the wingnuts’ hatred of Obamacare is grounded in economic logic?

So what’s Abel up to? Is he exploiting the exploited? Confirming our basest bigoted notions? Embarrassing us with our most stalwart prejudices?

I’m not sure. I just find it all fascinating like a trailer park situated next to a golf course. Abel, the cranky cartoonist—mining the tradition of such humanist-satirists as Honoré Daumier and Max Beckmann—double-winds the rubber band around sympathy and attack. There’s tension between our glaring disregard and our glaring schadenfreude for his prey. There’s tension between his portrayal of the uneducated who think the devil is real and the liberals who think he’s made-up. There’s tension between Abel’s achromatic images—drawn with funhouse perspectives and caricatured bodies: many women are lumpy and wasted, many men, fat and ball-capped—and the gritty writing his ne’er-do-wells do not so well. There’s tension between what these people believe about America and what we think about what they say about America. Suffice it to say there is a colossus of irreconcilable emotions in this book. As one would expect the exploited to bear.

What else can we deduce? That Abel, like Chekhov, is only asking questions, not providing answers? That he’s not sure what he thinks about the noblesse oblige of these folk whose pouty-mouthed words and self-loathing ideals he must scrutinize? All’s a conundrum, orchestrated by Abel’s operatic endurance, the abject, stripped naked before the easel or, better, into Photoshop.

I do recognize there’s virtue in exaggerating the captive, which Van Gogh reminds us is art’s mission, especially those fraught moments when we fall, grovel, and feel shame. This last trait is particularly well-handled in Rank n’ File. Shame separates the wheat from the chaff. Imagine Abel (maybe he will) creating a mashup cocked at the 1%, laying bare their Park Avenue pique and dog-walking intemperance. Couldn’t we find the same nasty tone in what Muff and Reginald say about attending Harvard, having to share a bathroom with plain folk from the Midwest? We would hear complaints galore but not, I think, such heavily self-inflicted marks of worthlessness, embarrassment, and regret.

I think Abel is offering a contemporary turn on the shallowness of our expectations, those base ideals with which too many Americans lie to themselves (the more American we act, the bigger the deceit) and which the underclass reflects—or reflects to us when we stare—if they reflect anything. We live in a society which has so corrupted the dignity of everyday work (service workers, immigrant labor, odd jobs), of living simply (within one’s means, sans credit), of secure communities (ones not riddled with guns and drugs) that we must disenthrall our honorific, American exceptionalism, or else redefine it: that the lowly abuse themselves with junk food, racist ideology, money idolatry, and class envy; that the most wretched among us are branded with this stigmata; and that John Daniel Abel has put his wicked little finger on all of it.