We are clearly in a historic moment, when the familiar restlessness of youth is anchored not in some existential yearning but in the reality of joblessness and/or bad jobs, troubled parents (those 1960s-70s refugees), troubled contemporaries, and an overall sense of personal defeat.
It’s hardly like Jack Kerouac and the famed Open Road at all. Sex among unmarrieds has long since lost its forbidden charms. Drugs, likewise unforbidden, offer an annoyance rather than a portal to eternity. Mortality seems far closer than it should be for the young. But most of all: a sense of purposelessness.
Noah Van Sciver is a cartographer of his generation, and the biographical fact that he pays rent by driving to comic shows with his own books—still mostly from small presses—makes him an updated Harvey Pekar of sorts, a long, long way from the New York world of guest lectures, academic appointments, and illustration assignments. Some months ago, I received an advanced copy of Shoplifter by Michael Cho, one of those few books by the less-than-famous that Pantheon offers to an audience likely familiar with no more than a half-dozen names. It’s a well-drawn little book about an alienated Asian-American office worker, but even in her saddest moments with clerical labor and lovers, the protagonist is not desperate.
Saint Cole himself, a young guy with a live-in girlfriend and unplanned baby, is by contrast already in trouble before the mother-in-law moves in. He takes all the hours he can get as a waiter at a pizza joint. He means well, but self-medicates, i.e., drinks too much. He is, most of all, the only one in the household bringing in money. His alienation is financial pressure, the same pressure on college drop-outs (or never-starteds) in an economy where the unionized factory jobs, even the non-unionized factory jobs, have just about disappeared. The service economy needs millions of workers like him but has many millions who would be just as happy taking his job. The downward spiral is multifaceted. It has him deeper in debt, it has him fantasizing about sex out loud, in a repulsive, self-destructive, uncontrollable fashion. In short: acting like one more loser in a sports bar that could be anywhere, from noon to midnight and beyond. This is pained realism, not even “ripped from the headlines” because it is sub-headline, everyday news.
To give away more would be a disservice to the book’s readers. Better, perhaps, to dwell a little on the depressive, transhistoric moods in Van Sciver’s rapidly-growing list of volumes. His loser in Youth Is Wasted has a lot better prospects, if having a few prospects, without a family to finance, is much better than having none. His Lincoln crypto-biography, The Hypo, sends depression backward to one of America’s most successful politicians, and finds a young man troubled almost to suicide, perhaps by genetics but perhaps by something else. Van Sciver’s style seems uniquely suited to the topic of today’s youngsters, admittedly bearing the influence of the Second Wave underground artists like Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge—with kind of visual raggedness driving home the narrative points--but taking that influence in fresh directions.