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Saving the family funnies
(SALON) -- Every year when Tim Mix, the hero of J. Robert Lennon's new novel, "The Funnies," was a child, his cartoonist father would draw a few strips as if Tim had done them and tell his readers he'd gone on vacation and his son was taking over. Now he's dead, having pronounced as a last wish that Tim really take over his all-American cartoon strip, "The Family Funnies" (think "Family Circus"), a "bread machine" of syndication and merchandising. Tim's family, released at last from their role as fodder for the strip's simple jokes, implodes, while Tim -- who narrates their story, and his -- transforms from reluctant son into reluctant family hero.
The problem is, Tim has decided to stay away from cartoons and make unsalable found-art sculptures instead. After his father's death he gives up his girlfriend and his sculptures and goes home to the house he grew up in, deeded by will to his schizophrenic brother, Pierce, the one sibling who was never represented in the strip. Intent on protecting the "Family Funnies" franchise, Tim sits at his father's desk, tutored by Brad Wurster (a grumpy acolyte of the old man's who could never do a strip of his own), racing to learn the style he had once disdained fast enough to avoid being replaced by the impatient syndicate.
The novel dramatizes the pain at the source of the strip's visual gags, and there's pain in its own gags, too, such as the teenagers costumed as Tim and his siblings at the annual "Family Funnies" fair (they mock him when he tells them, "You're me"), or the Timburger ($6.50, gouda and bacon added) at the same fair. When Tim discovers pornographic cartoons of his parents that his father had hidden and, later, in a storage room, giant cut-out versions of his family with red wagons full of their secrets, the strip characters begin to seem like two-dimensional voodoo dolls controlling the family's lives via symbols of their torments. Pierce, the likable schizophrenic who believes his father controlled his every thought, seems completely reasonable by the end. "You're not looking hard enough," he says when Tim tries to reassure him about his absence from the strips. "I'm in every one of them."
Lennon entertainingly sends up celebrity culture and the new children-of-celebrity culture, but his most substantial achievement is his three-dimensional portraits of Tim and Pierce -- something their father never did accomplish in his strips. The novel suggests an unnerving reason that all the children in "The Family Funnies" were so little at the same time and never grew up. It makes large what the real funnies make small.
Alexander Chee has written for Out, Poz, the San Francisco Review of Books and Publishers Weekly.
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