Sunday, December 29, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #29: Luke Healy

Luke Healy emerged from CCS as a fully-formed cartoonist. All of his early minis are excellent and well-designed, and he's been remarkably productive since then, with three books under his belt. His most recent book, Americana, is probably the most straightforward of his books, in that it's a travel memoir that mixes text and comics. At the same time, there's something that's deeper than a simple account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. This is a story about displacement of identity at a deep level. Healy is a native of Ireland who spent a lifetime obsessing over the USA: its culture, its expansiveness, and its possibilities. He loved America, but he wasn't able to stay here for any appreciable length of time. His visa expired after a year at CCS, and he wasn't able to return until halfway through his second year. He couldn't find any jobs that would allow him to stay.

All of that led him to fixate on walking the Pacific Crest Trail--over 2,500 miles through desert, mountains, and forests. He had no experience hiking or camping at all. His "practice" was the occasional long walk on level land in Ireland. Over the course of over 300 pages, Healy details his struggles (physical and emotional) on the trail and meeting his eventual goal at the Canadian border. The way Healy writes about America and his life, in general, is a pervasive sense of something being missing--something that he could see that was just beyond his grasp. He's uncomfortable in his own skin, and that seems to have little to do with the fact that he's gay. There's a basic sense of total discomfort that's palpable in his other work by way of his characters and author persona, and a little more subdued here. After all, this version of Luke is as much an invention as in his other books, but it's the one based most closely on real events in his life.

It's also subdued because the audience is presented with all-Luke, all the time. He doesn't go out of his way to make himself likable, but he also tones down on some of the negative self-talk. Part of that is through the genuine focus on the experience of hiking the PCT. It was grueling, and he even seriously thought about quitting when he got near Los Angeles. A friend picked up him and he rested for several days, but he decided to go back to the trail again. A sticking factor halfway through was the ill health and eventual death of his grandfather; each time he thought about going home, his family encouraged him to keep hiking. He even managed to talk to his grandfather a few times, who was perfectly delighted that his grandson was hiking in America.

This book, by its very nature, is sprawling and self-indulgent. Healy has no pretensions regarding special insights into hiking, nature, America, or even himself. This is not to say that he doesn't think about and discuss all of these things, and he records it to the best of his ability. He gets across each of the bizarre environments he hikes through, from the Mojave Desert to the High Sierras, and he relays just how poorly prepared he was for all of this. He could barely set up his tent and made poor time at the beginning of the hike. The camaraderie of the trip was an interesting subplot, because it was something that he both cultivated and avoided. He usually preferred to be alone, but there were times that he wanted to share some of his experiences. That became especially true about halfway through the hike, when a mountain lion came sniffing around his tent at night. That motivated Healy to hike much faster and talk his way into camping with other folks at night.

Healy's line is simple, expressive, and surprisingly kinetic. The characters in the book are almost always moving, albeit slowly, and Healy showed a knack for depicting this movement while also providing a real sense of the environment. The pinks and blues he used as single-tone fills added just the right amount of atmosphere.

Ultimately, this is a book about emptying one's self. When one's only concern is surviving on the trail on a day-to-day basis, other things fall away. Healy was twitchy, restless, overstuffed and anxious; he implies that he was drawn to the PCT because it would beat these things out of him. The trail made him lose weight at a rapid pace, his fat reserves consumed by the relentless energy needed for the trail. There was the sort of camaraderie that comes about when people are thrown into a strenuous, isolating situation. By the end of the trail, he had not only become a proficient hiker, but the hike itself became everything. At the end, he felt mostly relief and weariness. He could finally stop. The cumulative effect was like any strenuous, meditative activity: helping Healy empty his mind and quiet it.

I don't think this book had much to do with America per se, other than simply being the setting for this trek. The quote he had at the beginning alludes to this a bit: "I'm driven by my hunger for the American experience. But also by the hope that if I gorge myself on it, I'll become sick of the taste." His PCT trek had nothing to do with the Hollywood or cultural image of America that he was so drawn to. Instead, he took on America as a beautiful, sprawling, and dangerous geographic entity. It was unsentimental, unwelcoming, and yet almost painfully beautiful at times. He let America drain his body of strength, batter him, wear him down, and finally focus. Confronting America in this way is what finally allowed him to release his fixation. It's about having no choice but to let go.

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