Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Maybe it’s not advisable to read about the death of a father when your own father has just died. But Alison Bechdel writes about her father with such understanding — and her father was so different from mine — that reading it was a bittersweet but not too painful experience. Fun Home is a graphic memoir by the author of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. I first discovered Dykes to Watch Out For in the Boston Phoenix, and found that you don’t have to be gay to appreciate good writing and sharp humor. When Jenn and I were running our bookstore in Fort Greene, we featured the Dykes collections in our small but carefully selected gay and lesbian section. (Some customers were tickled to discover that Jenn, like the bookstore owner in Dykes, is a black woman with dreads — though the fictional owner is bigger and grumpier than Jenn.) I knew from Dykes to Watch Out For that Alison Bechdel was smart, but I didn’t realize how literary she is until I read Fun Home. She comes from a literary family, to be sure: In Fun Home we see her father reading Proust and her mother acting in plays based on Henry James and reading Margaret Drabble (a favorite of mine) for fun. Bechdel herself begins writing a diary at the age of ten, and excerpts from that diary appear throughout Fun Home. Fun Home is primarily about Bechdel and her father Bruce. Her mother is distinctly a secondary character, and even the names and number of her brothers are left pretty vague. (A boy in one panel is labeled “one of my brothers.”) But we see what seems like every flagstone, silk flower, and square of gold leaf in Bruce’s painstaking restoration of the family’s Gothic Revival house, and Bechdel is a tireless investigator of her parents’ troubled marriage and her father’s hidden life. Bruce Bechdel was struck and killed by a Sunbeam Bread truck while crossing the highway near another house that he was restoring. Bechdel returns again and again to this scene. She is convinced that her father killed himself (“There’s no mystery!” she imagines telling someone at the funeral. “He killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second.”) But readers may have more doubts. How likely is it that someone would kill himself in the middle of a working day, without a note or other warning, by jumping backward into the path of a truck? But whatever happened that day, Fun Home is an subtle, moving memoir of an odd, gifted, troubled family.

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