The small patch outside of Jeremiah’s sparse house, next to an empty wreck of ground where another house once stood, is where he spends his days: he rushes out to them in the mornings, lays there throughout the day, staring up at the empty sky until dark sometimes. He is fleeing something: his stern, dismissive father, the kids at school who bully him, the young girl Catie who loves him though she may be his kin. The corn stands tall around him, blots out the sun, gives him peace and respite from the pain that gnaws at his guts, hides him from reality. But as he eventually learns from Michael, an older boy and drifter who helps out his father in exchange for a tenuous promise of money, the corn is dead; nothing grows in the field and they pull up weeds out of habit, just to stay busy.
What happened? There are hints and portents in this eerie work by Cathy G. Johnson, published complete for the first time in print after knocking around in various other formats for a half-dozen years, but nothing is definitively stated. Jeremiah is not that kind of book. Threads of plot are strung together and unravel like corn silk; but they never thread back again, because they are showing us flashes of meaning through slabs of darkness. Reading the book is like trying to see what’s in a field through the slats of a fence as your drive past. It’s frustrating and elliptical, but what’s on the other side is just too fascinating for you to not keep trying.
Perhaps the world has died. Jeremiah and his family have no neighbors and receive no visitors, and they seem to live on scraps and leftovers. His dog ran away to the woods at the edge of the cornfield and never returned; he seems haunted by its absence but frightened by the possibility that it might yet live. But there is a school, and there is Michael, and there are questions; perhaps the world is not yet dead, but only his little corner of it. Where is his mother? How is Catie kin to him? Why does he so rarely speak, and what is eating him alive from the inside? Each page, simply laid out but with entrancingly quiet transitions from one panel to the next, generates new questions, but the answers are as distant as the skies to which the crows periodically flee after bursting from that cornfield.
Everyone wants something different from Jeremiah. His father wants him to keep quiet and do as he’s told. Catie wants to love him. Michael wants to draw him out. He is a human toy battered back and forth on the sharp angles of three corners. Inside, he is more expressive than he lets on, but in more agony than he can imagine; he may not lack the voice to give expression to his feelings, but he lacks the ability to articulate them, to himself or to anyone else. He has a Hamlet-like quality of indecision, of putting off momentum in any direction, and though he wants to be happy, his final bursts of decisiveness are pointed entirely at the wrong places, and his attempts to seize what he desires leads him to a cold and beautiful end as this small, exquisite ghost of a book concludes.
But this is the only thing about Jeremiah that might be considered “European”. Everything else about it is distinctly American, and hauntingly old. From its slow country passages to its simple, expressive drawing to its washes of contrasting muted watercolors, it is a thing of folklore. Its storytelling draws not on mystery, but on the Mysteries, the ancient and strange qualities of old Christian symbolism and tradition supplanted into the great vastness of the American frontier. The book itself is named after another, the Bible’s Book of Jeremiah, from which it draws its epigraph; the Good Book’s Jeremiah was a lonely prophet at a time when the children of Israel had forsaken God, and his sad task was to keep faith in Jehovah alive while His people wandered through exile. In one of Jeremiah’s only transparent metaphors, the boy, like the prophet, learns that he cannot hope for hope or joy, and that mere survival is the most he can realistically expect.
Like the Mysteries, it is hard to connect Jeremiah’s struggle with anything in our own daily lives, for his is a time of great distance and emptiness that is very far away. But also like the Mysteries, Jeremiah’s straightforward but open-ended struggles and trials let us read so much into them they are like a mirror that reflects not what is in front of it, but what we want to see in it. Catie can be a temptress or a protector; Michael can be a savior or a brute; Jeremiah himself can be a naïf or a wise fool – or he can be us. Beyond its Biblical origins, Johnson gives us little in the way of facts, but so multifaceted and rich is its symbolism, she gives the story enough breathing room that it lets us read it in such a way that it rolls slowly forward, giving it more weight and meaning than we could ever have gleaned from a more standard narrative.
Jeremiah doesn’t look like much. It’s a small book with a modest cover. Its story is as wide and free as the sky, but within that context, it is bound almost painfully into the story of a few people in a small space with almost no options or choices left to them. It is a testament to Johnson’s skill as an artist and storyteller that she manages to make something so great out of something so modest, to send hope and hopelessness crashing so passionately into one another, to bring us a prophecy without a prophet.