The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, May 12, 2006, Books


by James Vance and Dan Burr

Norton, 200 pp., $16.95 (paper)

America's Great Depression of the 1930s isn't the backdrop for this story; it is the story, embodied by a diverse cast of characters struggling to survive the deprivations and horrors of unremitting poverty, of politically motivated violence, of constant vagabonding with no direction home.

The narrative follows Freddie, a small-town teenager, parentless, who's on the lam from the law. Having ditched the last crumbling remnant of subsistence, the boy's got nowhere to go but down – and out, into the train-tracked world of stew bums and bindlestiffs, jockers and preshuns, yeggs and dregs and others who frequently define the depths of unsavory. Freddie hooks up with an experienced hobo named Joker and accompanies him on a far-ranging journey through the underbelly of the beleaguered States, meeting adversity and adventure, edging toward manhood as he grows accustomed to a life spent on the move and with seldom a safe harbor in which to rest.

James Vance has done his research well and imbues this story, a markedly different and much-expanded version of his earlier stageplay On The Ropes, with details more than sufficient to immerse the reader in the times and places Freddie lives through, with characters nuanced enough to give a damn about. The artwork by Dan Burr is realistic and straightforward, rendering the action and its lulls in lovingly detailed images, the pace and shape of panels progressing so cinematically that you might imagine the ghost of John Ford kibitzing from the shadows.

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