Henderson’s new novel shocks with depth and heart

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November 3, 2014

The Road Narrows as You Go

By Lee Henderson

Hamish Hamilton

512 pp. $32.95

Reviewed by Aaron Shepard

Set almost entirely in the mid-1980s, The Road Narrows as You Go is both satire and Künstlerroman, chronicling the rise and fall of Wendy Ashbubble, a budding cartoonist who dreams of a career like her hero, Charles Schulz. She resides at No Manors, the home of San Francisco’s beloved artist Hick Elmsdales, who succumbs to AIDS at the story’s beginning. The aftermath of his death includes a two-day wake attended by both fictional and real legends such as Art Spiegelman, Berkeley Breathed and Schulz himself. There’s also a cannibalistic ritual initiated by the mysterious artist Jonjay, Wendy’s muse, which establishes the novel’s anarchic tone.

Wendy’s strip, Strays, finds success thanks to Frank Fleecen, a financial wizard and junk bonds trader who hooks her up with increasingly lucrative syndication and merchandise deals. No Manors becomes a comic strip factory, a commune fueled by coffee, weed, sex and a collective love of comics and art.

Wendy’s story is narrated by her four assistants, who serve as a Greek chorus to this ribald tale. The assistants’ Sisyphean task of creating an animated Strays Christmas television special anchors the narrative and allows for interesting digressions on the history of animation and other art mediums. Much like A.S. Byatt, herself a passionate art historian, Henderson unapologetically fills pages with cultural quasi-lectures. It’s tempting to skim at times, but the patient reader is rewarded with moments of insight and arresting detail: “A drawing was the soul of all art….His fences weren’t Berlin Walls, they were barriers between childhood and adulthood, or between the imagination and its prey, easily climbed over, spied through, vandalized and whitewashed.”

Wendy is a conflicted character: ambitious but naïve, free-spirited but insecure. Among her quirks is her belief that Ronald Reagan is her father, though she’s largely ignorant of his politics and – like this reader – the world of finance in general.

If Reagan is the distant father figure, Frank is the sexualized embodiment of Reaganomics. Frank and Wendy rocket through the story riding the shotgun energy of frontier capitalism. As Wendy’s hunger for mainstream acceptance grows, a series of crises presages her downfall: the disappearance of Jonjay; a snooping Securities and Exchanges Commission; the emergence of her polar opposite, Bill Watterson, the famously anti-consumerist creator of Calvin and Hobbes.

John Ralston Saul recently remarked on Nikolai Gogol’s influence on dark comedy in the modern novel. Akin to Chichikov’s encounters in Dead Souls, Henderson’s frequently hilarious and raunchy scenes brim with a manic, moral energy. While the novel pays homage to the comic strip heyday of the ’80s, it is also concerned with the phenomena of excess, the creative impulse colliding with capitalist greed. Even set among motifs particular to that decade – the rise of AIDS, the hysteria over satanic cults – things like “the deregulation of the financial market and privatization of the prison industrial complex” feel immediate and urgent, the roots of our social and financial crises laid bare.

The final chapters, which speed through the next two decades while still engaging the reader, offer a poignant, surprising denouement that recasts the entire story in a wondrously different light. As in Henderson’s first novel, The Man Game, there is a note of yearning here, a desire for a world where aesthetics and the pleasures of art are accorded greater value than they’re given in our humdrum, market-driven reality. Like a good comic strip, beneath all the hijinks, The Road Narrows as You Go shocks you with its depth and heart.

Everything Aaron Shepard knows about Ronald Reagan he learned from reading Bloom County as a teenager in Salmon Arm. When is a Man (Brindle and Glass, 2014) is his first novel.

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