I grew up in Arizona. The state, then as now, was home to one of the largest Mormon populations in the United States; while my own parents were transplants from Alabama firmly ensconced in a humorless but easily navigable Southern Baptist tradition, one of my uncles had converted to the Church of Latter-Day Saints in order to marry his sweetheart. In our family, this was what passed for an extremely exotic lifestyle move.
My childhood in the 1970s and my teenhood in the 1980s was marked by one strange encounter after another with Mormons, from the impossibly square, sterile household kept by my friend Paul’s parents to the disappearance of one of my skate-punk pals who got shipped off to a youth camp in Provo for reprogramming to the longstanding rumors (later proven scandalously true) of boys up north getting abandoned by their families in breakaway Mormon sects for being sexual competition in the tight-knit communities.
Why is this relevant? When you’re dealing with biographical comics, anything goes, as long as it feeds the story. Noah Van Sciver, probably best known for his sharp Fante Bukowski: Struggling Writer series, was raised Mormon in suburban New Jersey, a fact which, standing alone, gives his new book, One Dirty Tree, a strange cultural frisson to me. While intellectually, I’m aware that Mormons exist in every county, city, and practically every country, it’s hard for me to square the idea of this reserved, rule-bound, exceptionally fertile religion existing outside of my low desert youth, marked as it was there by a uniquely Western libertarianism and almost entirely absent of any kind of bohemianism. Such was not the case with Van Sciver’s family; his father was a temperamental but curiously artsy man who encouraged his kids to develop their individual talents and himself forsook the money he might have otherwise made as an attorney frittering away his time on an epic poem about his religion.
One Dirty Tree draws its punning name from the number (133) of the house Van Sciver grew up in in Merchantville. It’s curiously light in the telling; while there are some nice narrative details (his parents keeping dirty dishes in the bathtub and young Noah getting splinters in his feet from the unfinished floors), the only times we get a real sense of the house is in its looming, gothic appearance in his memory and its banal, fixer-upper reality when he goes to visit it again as an adult. We don’t get a feel for the house or even for the people who lived there; Van Sciver introduces the whole clan, himself and his parents and his seven siblings, but for a story of a family and its environment, it doesn’t really spend much time with either. Van Sciver’s dreaming father plays a large part of the narrative, and we get a few entertaining glimpses of what his life was like, but overall, it never really coheres. We know almost nothing about his sisters (one anecdote of his father lustfully watching a Mariah Carey video with one of them seems like it should be a lot more meaningful than it actually is), and the book is too slight to build on what are admittedly some very strong building blocks.
Instead, the story spends a lot of time flashing forward to the modern-day Van Sciver, trapped in an unhappy relationship with his insensitive girlfriend Gwen and struggling to make a living with his art. It’s not that this material is weak, especially, although his depiction of himself transforming into a literal monster whenever the two of them fight is pretty heavy-handed. In fact, it has interesting things to say about how creative artists find it harder and harder to make money, and the thin skin people who are raised poor develop when they have to spend a lot of time around people who weren’t. It’s just that these halves of the book don’t ever really come to terms with one another. Van Sciver lived this life, so it’s probably pretty easy for him to connect the dots, but the story itself doesn’t take enough care to do so for us, and we’re left to make some pretty broad assumptions.
And that’s too bad, because One Dirty Tree is a book that has a lot going for it. Van Sciver’s art continues to be hugely appealing, and some of the imagery here (his ludicrously be-Afro’d childhood self-caricature, and a clever use of photocopied reference materials in some excellently done reminiscences of playing Jurassic Park with his friends) is among his best. It’s the kind of a work that often gets described as “charming”, but it’s a bit too heavy for that: as his father’s personality disintegrates in the past and his own relationship does the same in the present, it leads to some introspective moments that weigh down the charm with a lot of sorrow. What we’re left with is something neither tree nor reptile, a dramatic memoir that drifts too much to be as powerful as it should be and a humorous recollection of youth that lacks the deadpan comedic punch of some of his other work. This isn’t a bad book by any measure, but what’s good about it are an assortment of odd bits and loose ends that never really measure up into a story that almost bristles under the demand to become something more.
Back in Arizona, in a brief flirtation with college that ended badly for both me and college, I made the acquaintance of a Mormon girl whose mother, at age 42, had already had twelve children. Like Van Sciver, she grew up in a huge family that struggled with poverty and a father who took his professional frustrations out on his family; like Van Sciver, she loved comic books, and this formed the basis of our brief but intense friendship. Reading One Dirty Tree, I find myself wondering if she’d have agreed with me that its shapelessness and looseness wounded an otherwise strong work. But I also find myself thinking that if the book conjured up such a strong memory of her, maybe it’s not such a failure after all.