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Monday, September 01, 2008

Abandoned Cars -- Tim Lane's fascination with what he calls "The Great American Mythological Drama," comes along at the perfect time, the beginning of the end of the automobile era. The title Abandoned Cars couldn't be more resonant. I abandoned mine three years ago, although I still rely on my wife's for trips of any length. The arrival of the peak oil phenomena and gasoline prices unthinkable to comfortably numb Americans has begun to make Lane's title truer than it would have been even a year ago. Have you noticed how many more people are bicycling or hoofing it these days? Lane's romanticism for American Mythology, therefore, arrives at just the right time.

My childhood memories of family trips smell of cheap diesel fuel at roadside truck stops. They're painted in the gaudy primary colours of worn-out convenience stores, and there's a peeling South of the Border bumper sticker slapped on them. I can't remember the address of the first house I lived in, but I can vividly remember the day my parents (and dozens of other drivers) bought bad gas on a highway in the south and had their vehicles break down less than a mile from the gas station. Lane would have liked to draw the sight of all those inconvenienced Americans bewildered by their suddenly disabled motor cars. Turns out there was water in the gas. The gas station's parent company ended up buying my parents (and dozens of other drivers) new cars rather than replacing the destroyed engines in all those, well, abandoned cars.

Abandoned Cars is a thrilling collection of short stories infused with the elements of Lane's obsession: Elvis, old cars, beat-up diners and sleazy bars. Lost loves, hobos, boxcars and crushing regret. Almost-pretty girls using every drop of their sexual power for the brief season they possess (and are possessed by) it. The book is flanked by haunting duel images: Skinny Brando and Fat Brando; no more evocative summation of the American Catastrophe is needed, or even possible. Lane's America has gone to seed. Its better days are far behind it, a promise that seemed always on the horizon until one day we noticed it was long, long past. Irretrievable; gone, baby.

Lane's strongest visual influence is Charles Burns, but you'll find a little Daniel G. Clowes in the way he sets a scene with detailed portraiture. Burns and Clowes both are quintessential chroniclers of America's losers and victims, and so Lane's evocation of their styles seems a good fit. He owns what he's doing, here, though, building on his influences and allowing his themes to suffuse both his words and pictures. There's a little bit of the feel of EC Comics to Abandoned Cars, too, like Jack Kamen could have turned something like this out, if he really had anything of his own to say in his comics work instead of merely illustrating Gaines and Feldstein's ideas. I can't help but think that if Harvey Kurtzman had been at the top of his creative power right now instead of when he was editing Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, he would have admired the hell out of Tim Lane's work and dedication to a single subject.

The game is up and America is fucked, and although we've known it was coming for years, the moment now is obviously and undeniably upon us like a hurricane on the gulf coast, or a sub-prime meltdown on the housing market. Abandoned Cars shows us both the appeal of, and the monumental fraud at, the heart of the now-ending American era. At one point, in one of these stories, one of Lane's characters longs to "Jump a train -- any train moving." Lane takes us back to a time when it was still possible to do that, before our current era when the trains, and planes, and automobiles are all coming to a halt and the options are running out. But unlike the news media, he knows it's a false romanticism and that all the chips have long ago been cashed in. As the same character later realizes, "Maybe I've had it all wrong...the wrong idea about everything." In these two sequences, Lane sums up the entirety of the American experience. If only our leaders spent as much time pondering the powerful myth and tragic errors of our nation.

Buy Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane from Amazon.com.



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