Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Noah Van Sciver's One Dirty Tree

Noah Van Sciver's One Dirty Tree earned him an Eisner Award nomination, and it's certainly well-deserved. This 2018 release from Uncivilized Books is self-revealing and honest in a way that Van Sciver has been hinting at for a long time with regard to his family. The structure of the book is interesting, as Van Sciver's autobiographical comic bounces back and forth between 1994 and 2014. This is a book about the ripples of childhood trauma reverberating down through the years, affecting mental health and personal choices. It's blisteringly funny and honest but recognizes the humanity in even the most problematic of figures. Van Sciver doesn't hold back in his depictions but isn't interested in passing judgment on others. Indeed, one of the central ideas in the book is the ways in which poverty has a profoundly detrimental effect on long-term mental health and stability.

One Dirty Tree focuses on the build-up to two significant life events: the steady erosion of his family in 1994 (when he was eight years old) and the erosion of his relationship with his girlfriend in 2014. That's when Van Sciver was just starting to taste some success as a cartoonist but still had to work full-time at a Panera in order to make ends meet. The book focuses on some of the last days spent in their dilapidated New Jersey home, called "One Dirty Tree" by his older brothers because it was on 133 Maple Terrace and there was a dead, gnarled oak tree in the front yard. Van Sciver expands on what it was like to grow up as one of eight siblings in tight, shabby quarters as part of a Mormon family, a rarity in New Jersey at the time.

As one might guess, it wasn't pleasant. His depiction of his family's life is matter-of-fact, just as one's own view of one's family life isn't informed by outside sources until much later in life. Both of his parents were religious up to a point, but they were also sort of hippies and started to become less and less religiously observant. His father, a lawyer, grew his hair out long and started to become disinterested in actually working. As a result, the Van Sciver family was dependent on their church for food, a car, and other charity items. At the same time, they Van Sciver's father grief for having long hair and he pushed back.

All of this led to a lifetime of shame for Van Sciver, especially since his vocation as a cartoonist wasn't exactly poised to make him get rich. His girlfriend Gwen was well-off financially and he lived with her in an environment that was unusually affluent for him. While he loved her and dreamed of a future with her, he always dreaded a break-up because their needs and backgrounds were so different. When trying to explain his background to a friend of Gwen's Van Sciver drew himself as a monster, because that's what he felt like: ugly, abhorrent, and abjected. While Van Sciver was not religious, he was tired of constantly being looked at like a freak for growing up Mormon, not to mention being judged solely on his income.

Again, Van Sciver isn't looking to lay blame. Even his father, who abandoned his family, is someone Van Sciver later reconnected with. Both his mother and father were people expected by society and religion to fill certain roles and found themselves chafing against those roles. His mother was an art student before she dropped out to get married, but she never gave up on writing. While there are no villains in this story, Van Sciver's mother is undoubtedly given the warmest treatment. The ways in which she stepped outside norms (laughing at a drawing her son made in church, giving Noah a high-five instead of punishing him when he kissed a girl) brought her closer to her children, and it's obvious that Van Sciver never forgot it.

Van Sciver implies that like his parents, he just isn't very good at being normal and doing what's expected. He's a free spirit who took his drawing obsession and turned it into his life's work. The problem is that he found it hard for others to take it seriously, conflating artistic ambition with not just laziness, but being a scammer or fake of some kind. What's worse is that it's clear that there will always be a part of him that believes this to be true. Being raised to feel ashamed is hard to take, and while he accepts the how and why of it happened, it doesn't make it any easier to feel stable and secure as an adult.

Thinking about it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a child who grows up without basics like food and a reliable shelter will struggle later in life. What makes the book so compelling is the way that Van Sciver ties these struggles to specific kinds of homes and reflects on how the everyday experience of these environments had a profound effect on him. His old house had decaying floors filled with splinters. His father ripped out the kitchen and never replaced it, meaning that they had to do dishes in the bathtub. The close quarters made everyone irritable all the time. Living with Gwen in her nice place made him feel like an impostor or a tourist in a life he didn't really belong to. While the last line of the main text is Van Sciver saying "These are the cleanest walls I've ever lived inside," implying a sort of heartbreaking paralysis, the afterword finds him breaking that cycle of shame a little. He returns to his old home as an adult three years later, and while there are no major epiphanies, there is a sense of closure in facing this place that had such a profound and lasting impact. The final image is a cutaway drawing of Van Sciver's self-image inside his head saying, "Life is weird." The wounds might still be deep, but Van Sciver's realized that he had to accept where he came from: what other choice did he have?

No comments:

Post a Comment