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July 21, 2006

Dad to watch out for

A gorgeous story of a gorgeous
home, with a secret inside

Growing up is never easy. The most idyllic of lives on the surface can have roiling depths and dangerous riptides hidden by the calmest of veneers.

While Alison Bechdel, creator of the seminal lesbian comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, has never shied away from exploring all aspects of queer life, be it L, G, B or T, personal, political or professional, she has never been as intimate with her readers as she is in her new book Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95, hardcover.)

This gorgeous book with the die-cut cover immediately draws the eye, and once opened, it does not for a moment disappoint.

Detailing Bechdel�s youth from a small child in rural Pennsylvania through college, it is truly a life less ordinary.

Her parents were teachers, but her father also ran his family�s funeral home, hence the title--they always shortened the first word, calling it the �fyoon home.�

Her father�s avocation was decorating and renovating houses, and their own was his crowning glory.

The fa�ade of the Bechdel home and its magnificently decorated rooms, however, hide a father who is distant, himself a creation as much as any of his treatments.

Eventually, however, all fa�ades crack, and when Alison was 20, her father died crossing a road, hit by a truck. There was never talk of foul play, but the author is certain it was suicide, the stress of her father�s double life finally taking its toll.

After coming out as lesbian at Oberlin College, young Alison discovers she has been trumped by her generally distant father. He has slept with men throughout his entire life, hiding his proclivities as best he could, back in an age when the word �Stonewall� generally referred to a Union general in the Civil War.

Alison and her brothers� babysitter when they were little? A likely paramour of her father�s. The small stream of young men who helped her father with handiwork? Also the cause of her mother�s jealousy.

With her father�s death, however, come the many unanswered questions. Would he have been able to live as a gay man? Would he have been happier had he never married, never sired his trio of offspring? Alison will never know, perhaps mercifully. What she is left with, however, are recollections of a father who was often stern, generally distant, a soi-disant expert on interior design creating a perfect shell around a deeply flawed core. She is also left with memories of her father�s attempts at intimacy, at being a loving parent, warm flickers in the cold darkness of his life.

Bechdel tells this story in pictures as a graphic novel, as the form has come to be called. Detractors of the medium would surely discount it as a comic book, but make no mistake, it is a memoir, and one of the highest caliber.

Her artwork is top-notch, with blue-gray shading not found in her comic strip giving added dimension to the narrative. In the space of one autobiography, Bechdel makes her family as familiar as the characters who have appeared in her strips for the last 23 years.

It may be hyperbole to say that Bechdel has penned the great American novel. It would not be far from the truth, however, to say that she wrote a great American memoir, the literary equivalent of Grant Wood�s painting American Gothic.

 

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