Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Ada Calhoun, Fri., Jan. 19, 2001
When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours: Joe Teller, a Portrait by His Kid, Tellerby Teller
Blast Books, 128 pp., $24.95
On the heels of family biographies like Margaret Salinger's biography of her famous father, it should serve as at least some consolation that someone still loves and worships his parents. Take Teller, the silent, smaller half of comedy and magic duo Penn and Teller, known for, among other things, eating bugs. Anyone who has followed Teller's comedy career will be familiar with his humor and mischievous sweetness, but this biography of his doting bohemian parents (specifically his father, though his mother appears as a strong presence throughout) explains where Teller gets his enthusiasm for the universe.
These here Tellers are good people. One photo in this book is particularly haunting; in it, Teller's parents sit around their tiny kitchen table smiling at each other. It's their first night together as a married couple and they are obviously, unabashedly in love. "Never get married unless you can't help it," Teller's father advises the "Kid," as Teller refers to himself throughout the book. Teller, entranced by his parents' inability to avoid marrying each other, says he's always been aware that "Mam and Pad are locked in a mysterious, titanic love that is somehow linked to art." Teller uses this book as a pretext to probe further into their love, art, and personal histories.
Teller acknowledges that rooting around in one's parents' pre-parental lives is slightly disconcerting. But he dismisses any hesitation with this explanation: "To have at my elbow for who-knows-how-much-longer the two most intriguing individuals in my cosmos and never to ask them to tell their story -- well, that would be really, really dumb." And, in fact, Mam and Pad are truly intriguing. Pad (Joe Teller) was a hobo in the Twenties; many pages of this work are devoted to the funny, condensed postcards he sent home on his journeys. Some are downright poetic, for example: "The backwoods road is lined with French houses. The people here are good and kind. Watched them skin a pig."
But most of When I'm Dead is taken up with Joe Teller's paintings and drawings. The idea for this book began when Teller, on one of his dutiful weekly visits home, turned up a box of old comics his father had done that had never been published. Eager to right this wrong, Teller has included many of these 1939 sketches in shiny full-page reproductions. Appealingly quirky, the bulk of the drawings depict scenes from street and family life in Chicago. Hidden for 60 years, the comics have finally made their way into print. But what comes across, more even than Joe Teller's talent, is the Kid's endearing, almost fanatical, and remarkably appropriate filial piety.