Friday, April 10, 2015

Circling The Drain: Saint Cole

Noah Van Sciver's Saint Cole is a shaggy dog story disguised as one of Van Sciver's more familiar "loser stories". The narrative follows Joe, a hard-working but hard-drinking waiter who's trying to earn money for his girlfriend and their infant son. Beginning with the arrival of his hard-living mother-in-law and his lust for a new 17-year-old hostess at the restaurant at which he's a waiter, Joe has a very bad week, and Van Sciver informs the reader at the very beginning that his life was about to go down the drain. What follows is that loser scenario on steroids, as Joe makes a series of hilariously disastrous and ridiculous decisions that almost seem like a parody of the sort of thing that Van Sciver and many others do in depicting a character whose life is going down the tubes. However, this is all just a distraction for the final image of the book, one that was entirely earned thanks to what seemed to be throwaway clues planted throughout the book.

Indeed, the plotting of this book is airtight. What seem to be atmospheric or even entirely extraneous details and characters set up the near-apocalyptic final image, one that's so huge that it's ridiculous and even hilarious. Building up to that ending is some of Van Sciver's finest character work. It's clear that he worked hard on Joe, creating a slumped body posture for him but also putting him out there less as a loser than as an alpha male who's been beaten down by life. That sense of hubris is what dooms this character. The character of his mother-in-law is another triumph for Van Sciver, as she's a real sleazeball. When she offers Joe some crystal meth to smoke and he reluctantly agrees, the reader knows that absolutely no good was going to come of this. The actual results were even worse than one could have imagined, so disastrous that it takes the sort of deus ex machina ending to extricate Joe from the situation.

Regarding the end, it's amazing how much sense it makes, even if it is kind of crazy. The classic Van Sciver visual flourishes, like dense hatching and cross-hatching and drawing falling rain, all serve a greater purpose here. The standard Van Sciver weirdo characters wind up providing subtle clues, including the real meaning of the enigmatic title. Van Sciver almost gleefully provides these clues, like the fact that the cover and endpapers depict rain falling, or that the characters talk repeatedly about the weather. Again, what appears to be mundane takes on a greater meaning later in the book, so the reader should examine the book carefully as they proceed. While not quite as dense or thoughtful as The Hypo, Saint Cole is a great follow-up in the sense that Van Sciver stayed true to his style without repeating himself.

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