“The Alcoholic” is absolutely plastered (no pun intended) with blurbs calling it “hilarious” and “sad,” and while I agree with the second word to some extent, I don’t agree that there’s all that much hilarity here. Writer Jonathan Ames imbues this original graphic novel with a sense of cosmic irony, and a bleak sense of humor, but that’s a pretty far cry from the realm of the hilarious. The sadness and despair can reach such ridiculous depths that we can’t help but chuckle at the bad luck, and even worse choices, made by the protagonist, but I still wouldn’t use the word “hilarious” to describe anything about this book.
But it doesn’t need to be hilarious. It just needs to be good. And it is.
Your tolerance for Jonathan Ames — who’s doing his first graphic novel writing here, after a pretty extensive career as a witty, but tepid, gonzo journalist and literary raconteur — depends on how willing you are to embrace the contradictions within his narrator. I haven’t read everything Ames has ever written, but I’ve read plenty of his short stories and his journalism, and he’s always basically writing about himself — or some version of himself — getting into one weird situation after another. The contradictions come in when the narrator (in the case of “The Alcoholic” a character not so subtly named “Jonathan A.”) makes cringe-worthy decisions even after establishing himself as an intelligent person otherwise. He’ll say something smart, show a sense of self-awareness and introspection, and then sleep with completely the wrong person (or five of them, simultaneously). Or he’ll get drunk, excessively so. It’s like watching a flaming train collide with a bus full of orphans in slow motion. But with a sense of humor.
I happen to like Ames’ narrative voice quite a bit, but it’s certainly not for everybody. And I do think one of the flaws of this graphic novel is that it relies too much on narrative captions and accompanying illustrations — it’s not quite as caption-heavy as something like “Fun Home,” but it’s in that same narrative ballpark. But what would a Jonathan Ames story be without his unique voice? Not much more than a sequence of bad choices and sad results, really. So Dean Haspiel spends a lot of time drawing what the captions express with words.
Unlike many “literary” graphic novels, “The Alcoholic” doesn’t constrain itself to a single sequence of events — it’s not Jonathan A.’s summer adventures, or that really bad weekend, etc. — and instead explores the psychology of its protagonist over the long term. It flashes back and forth between the present and the past, detailing Jonathan A.’s love and pain, his selfishness and his compassion. It might be called “The Alcoholic,” but it’s not just a book about a character who likes to get drunk; it’s about a self-destructive character who isn’t hateful or angry. He’s just trying to do the best he can, and failing miserably.
That kind of behavior, with all of the passion and sadness and humor that goes along with it, well, some might call that life.
“The Alcoholic” isn’t a perfect graphic novel — and I don’t know that there’s all that much about it that wouldn’t have worked as a straight-up prose story — but Haspiel’s art is dynamic and bold, and Ames’s unique narrative voice makes it worth reading for sure.