Tim Lane’s two books — Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go — are near perfect in their look into an America filled with wanderers, hobos, misfits, and your average guy struggling to make it in a country that seems to withhold the promises it is famous for making. These are the stories of dreamers who lost their way, or more often than not, were pushed off the main path onto some side trail of disaster that many of us pretend does not exist, or at least we pretend it will never exist for us personally. These are warning tales of what goes wrong when fate turns against us.
But these are also tales of quiet beauty found in a train-yard at night, stories told over beer with early Tom Waits on the jukebox.* For example, we follow Tim Lane in his autobiographical tale of hopping a train. He talks of his being inspired by Kerouac, but his story is not one of a frantic Dean Moriarty but of Kerouac’s more meditative side. Tim Lane’s writing itself is often poetic: At one point while riding the train in the cold, Lane takes on a voice reminiscent of Whitman’s in “Song of Myself”: “I am those soldiers, disoriented and homeless at the end of the Civil War . . . . I am those immigrant travelers, the weatherworn and beat-up men. . . . I am the depression era hoboes, hapless down on their luck.”
Lane, as you can tell, is not afraid to be sincere and earnest, one of the most difficult tasks he undertakes in this book. At a time when irony seems to be the only way to convey a thought that is close to our hearts, Tim Lane speaks directly without a hint of irony in his voice: “The myth [of America] is the ghost I’m chasing. The myth is the American Romance that nobody talks about anymore. . . . The myth cloaks me protectively with its mystery, transports me above the absurd meaninglessness of daily life.” For me, this sincerity elevates his writing, but those who shy away from such direct sincerity might find Lane’s book less appealing than I do. But if you find Kerouac’s quiet, serious, philosophical side heartfelt, then I think Lane’s reflections will appeal equally to you.
Lane is aware of what he is doing: I am not describing him in the grand terms of a critic who sees more than is really there. At the end of his first book, Abandoned Cars, Tim Lane writes about his major theme: “The Great American Mythological Drama is hard to describe. . . . Abandoned Cars is the beginning of my investigation into that mythological drama, exploring it through the lives of the characters about whom I’ve written. This is my attempt to feel my way toward some kind of understanding of that drama, knowing beforehand that the undertaking is maybe too ambitious for me to expect to accomplish.” I write about both of his works together in this review because, as Lane explains, his characters are “like Faulkner’s citizens in Yoknapatawpha County, only my county is not America, but a distorted image of America, her mythical other, that exists omnipotently on the dimly lit backstreets of our collective imagination.”
How do I capture the essence of these books in an essay-review? Perhaps I can tell you of the people you will meet. You will read about the ex-carny who had “just been fired from the county fair earlier that day. He was drunk and pissed-off by the time we got there.” Then there’s the young man who, at twenty-eight, has managed to pull off only one thing he finds worth mentioning with pride: “This car is all I have to show for myself. . . . A get-away car, so when things didn’t work out, I could cash in my faith and just drive away.” And even though one narrator has “given up on new beginnings” and “misses those days [in college] — missed the guy I once was,” he sees some small hope at the birth of his best friend’s son.
We are introduced to a crowd of lost and wandering Americans for whom, in the midst of personal failures and loss, hope — though small — springs eternal: A young boy, on his way to someplace better, hops the railroad and finds the adult world more confusing and violent than he expected. Lane’s characters seem compelled to move forward in some way, as if sheer movement and change of place will make all the difference in life. But they all take their problems with them: In “Broken Bottle,” a man seeks out a bar and feels even lonelier than he did before, but he stays until closing time because he cannot bear the thought of walking out the door: I “tr[ied] to shake my fear of the door. I couldn’t lose the feeling that a vast void awaited me beyond it. Solitude can sometimes create such ghoulish and unreasonable thoughts.”
These are just small moments out of Lane’s stories and character studies,** but it is in these small moments that Tim Lane achieves his greatness: A man picks up a hitchhiker, and surprising even himself, tells the hitchhiker about his son just having died: “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But sometimes you say things to hear them said; to hear what they sound like; to find out if they’re still true.” He’s another broken man blind-sided by Fate. This time Fate took away his son and left rage in his place. Tim Lane gives us character studies like this one that are endlessly fascinating and unique; sometimes heartbreaking, but never boring.
Many of the stories are little gems of concision told in two, four, eight pages. Others are long and are divided into parts and spread out throughout the books. My favorite short-short story is “Everybody Hates a Romantic,” a one-page story about a couple and their daughter being interrupted on Christmas by “Uncle Harvey,” the drunk ex-husband of the woman, Maggie May. The new husband cannot understand what his wife ever saw in Harvey, but Lane masterfully conveys to the reader why Maggie May fell in love with Harvey long ago. Lane lets the reader see what the husband never does: not just what was initially attractive about Harvey, but also that some of his appeal is still working on his ex-wife in the present.
“Everybody Hates a Romantic” is a good representation of Lane’s storytelling: We see a glimmer of light shining through a now-lost dream from youth. Lane tells this story again and again from different perspectives and in varying situations, but just like other great writers — Flannery O’Connor comes to mind — the repetition of the theme from different angles increases our understanding of its complexity. The repetition does not become tiresome; it adds richness to Lane’s work as a whole. This seems appropriate because of the complex nature of the American Myth he is exploring.
Tim Lane’s art is stellar. Often it is realistic, but at other times, the faces and rooms bend as if we are seeing realistic art with the help of a hallucinogenic. This effect, first off, is just wonderful to look at. Secondly, it is always for a purpose, usually to capture the interior state of the subject of a particular story. For example, in one picture in “Notes of a Second Class Citizen,” the man in the basement sits frantically writing and somehow the walls behind him and the ceiling with water pipes all bend together, conveying a sense of claustrophobia one must feel when trapped in one room all day. In other words, Lane conveys the subjectivity of his characters through the style of art he employs.
He also uses his art to create a timeless twentieth-century America — it is often difficult to figure out in which decade a story takes place. Lane traces the path of the lost wanderer throughout the century and at times before that. One such figure he repeatedly examines is the immigrant, and at one point, he beautifully imitates the woodblock art of Lynd Ward in portraying through the eyes of the immigrant the dreams America offers him. (Lynd Ward used his images to create wordless graphic novels at the beginning of the twentieth century). His art also stands out because of the wide variety of perspectives he uses. The perspectives and heavy use of shadow combine in conveying a timeless America in which a man can got to sleep in 1995 and wake up decades earlier without the art style needing to change.
These books belong on the shelf next to Kerouac’s On the Road, yes, but in many ways, I marvel even more at Tim Lane’s achievement than I do Kerouac’s. This is saying a lot since I became an English professor because of reading Kerouac as a senior in high school. I have also come to appreciate the subtleties of Kerouac as I’ve aged, so, to be clear, I do not think Kerouac is immature. I think he is simply too often read immaturely, unfortunately. Tim Lane does have a few stories that inspire imitation and appeal to youth — particularly when he tells of riding trains himself as a young man — but for the most part, Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go are for a more mature audience. His books will appeal to older readers who have experienced life’s unexpected turns and the weight of irreversible decisions as the effects of those decisions come rolling in for years to come without hope of their cessation. There is lightness and humor too, but it is the kind we can appreciate after life has thrown us a few curve balls.
There is enough material in these two books to produce four or five impressive story collections — in other words, both books are generous in the amount of content they offer. These are not light, quick reads. The stories are weighty and intelligent. I guess the most I can do is to write this review and implore you to order Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go. And when you do, please pass on copies to friends who might not read comics, who prefer “serious literature,” not knowing that comics, like those of Tim Lane’s, often offer the most serious literature they could ever find. In fact, I’m worried that many, perhaps even most, of his potential readers are those who do not read comics, who would look at a book full of black-and-white pictures and not even give Tim Lane’s art a chance to work its magic. In just two volumes, Lane’s artistic narratives already almost match Raymond Carver’s lifetime output of short stories and in terms of content, Lane’s best stories are of equal quality to Carver’s best works.
In terms of quality in comics, I would place Tim Lane next to two other great writer-artists comic book masters of fiction: Jaime Hernandez and Terry Moore. Their books stand up to repeated readings, and all three artists have a unique visual style that is immediately recognizable. They also have each produced a body of work that is thematically unified.
Perhaps the best way to understand Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go is to listen to early Tom Waits and pay attention to both the atmosphere he creates and the characters who people his American landscape: To repeat then, Tim Lane’s work — his “Song of Myself” — is the best of Tom Waits’ early songs, Raymond Carver’s short stories, and Jack Keourac’s On The Road combined. If that sentence means something to you, I would imagine you are ordering these books right now.***
*Tim Lane’s musical references provide a perfect soundtrack for reading his work, from early Tom Waits, early Springsteen, and Elvis to jazz greats such as Miles Davis (his “melancholy trumpet), Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge, as well jazz crooners Frank Sinatra and Billy Eckstine.
**Tim Lane appropriately refers to the British writer Somerset Maugham, perhaps the best short story writer in the English language, who is also well known for his character sketches. Lane alludes specifically to The Razor’s Edge (a movie version plays in the background during a few scenes), which thematically touches on Lane’s own concerns in its focus on the American Dream: The main character decides not to follow the expected path in making money, turning his back on his American friends to wander, to read, and “to loaf,” as do Lane’s characters.
***I have focused on the short stories, in which fact and fiction seem to collide, but I’ve not mentioned that these books contain much more: fake advertisements, prose short stories, song lyrics, haiku and other poems, cut out figures, gag strips, photographs, interviews (some made-up, some real), scraps of paper with notes on them, and other odds and ends that make the books more than just simple collections of short stories. Some of the prose short stories are fantastic as are the haiku scattered throughout. It is also difficult to tell where some stories end and others begin. Oh, and the aliens. Did I mention the aliens? Well there are some aliens and strange dreams that are never explained. But, hey, what’s more American than getting abducted by aliens? Tim Lane, in fact, may or may not have been abducted during one particularly rough winter. I hear he’s much better. And finally, there is explicit material, particularly in one story in The Lonesome Go. You have been warned.