Friday, October 9, 2009

A Review: The Year of Loving Dangerously by Ted Rall and illustrated by Pablo G. Callejo

The Year of Loving Dangerously

Ted Rall (author)
Pablo G. Callejo (artist)
MSRP: $18.95 ($13 at Amazon, though)

(regular readers wondering why I'm reviewing a graphic novel would do well to read this)

The graphic novel-as-memoir is as likely a choice as you'll ever see from Ted Rall. Generally a target for controversy, at least with this book Rall can quash the arguments that his work is poorly drawn -- Pablo G. Callejo's artwork is delightful and spot-on and period (1984) when it needs to be.

The Year of Loving Dangerously chronicles Rall's "annus horribilis": from the fall of 1983 to the fall of 1984 he nearly died from a vampiric wart, failed out of Columbia, and was dumped by his long-time girlfriend. In what can scarcely be termed an improvement, Rall spent the summer and a great deal of the fall bed-hopping, bumming food, and fencing typewriters in an attempt to stave off homelessness. Dangerously ends with Rall in a secure job, sharing an apartment with his coked-out pothead of a buddy, and juggling three girlfriends.

Rall intended Dangerously to be "a chronicle of desperation, of how easy it is for anyone—even a white male attending an Ivy League school—to fall off the merry-go-round of U.S.-style laissez faire capitalism." I, however, tend more to agree with Xaviera Hollander's assessment: Rall's memoir is not a "chronicle of desperation" but rather an instruction book in how Rall "exploit[ed] his looks in return for financial reward."

That is, Rall's Dangerously does not read like a map of the dangers of capitalism. It reads like a glorious paean to it. When "the system" of specialists (professors) and bureaucrats (deans) not only failed him -- but became hostile to him, Rall went underground. Employing his only remaining capital -- good looks, intelligence, and charm -- Rall "avoided the ignominy of spending a night outdoors" not once but for the better part of a year.

Rall consistently found ways to exploit the system and make a profit -- whether in bedclothes or cash -- month after month of living screw-to-screw Rall did not survive -- he thrived. Knowing that the cheaper Connecticut transportation tokens work as subway tokens, Rall ran a nice black-market exchange to double his savings whenever he could. When he had to come up with nearly two month's pay for an apartment deposit, Rall stole equipment from the corporations he seems to despise even today -- becoming a bit of a corporate robber baron himself.

Reading Rall's memoir of homelessness and desperation, I was reminded of Adam Shepard who became intentionally homeless in order to prove that with drive, intelligence, and diligence there were no barriers to success. What Rall and Shepard have that most homeless folks do not are simply those few things -- education, intelligence, and drive -- that are imperative to financial success. So reading The Year of Loving Dangerously does not give us an insight into the problems of homelessness in America -- what it does is show us that if a "white male attending an Ivy League school" finds himself in dire straits he has no damn excuse but to pull himself up out of it.

I do think that Rall's book can be exceedingly valuable (though not as he intended) in helping understand the problem of homelessness. If Rall (or Shepard) can be ultimately untouched by homelessness, then what are the inherent problems keeping others homeless? Knowing that the problems are largely internal and not external ought to serve as a guide for those who want to eradicate homelessness (and don't we all?).

I would be remiss in my review of Rall and Callejo's excellent graphic novel if I didn't mention the "graphic" part. The book, when it is filmed, will certainly garner an "R" rating. The graphic novel is a perfect medium for depicting sex. As Tom Wolfe recently showed us, there is no right way to write directly about sexual intercourse -- it comes off as either mechanical or prurient. Either a medical journal or a Penthouse letter -- there are no in-betweens. With a graphic novel, however, sex-writing just works. It straddles both poles and rides to satisfaction without stains of boredom or pornography.

As I say, The Year of Loving Dangerously is an excellent work. If I may have wanted to know more about what happened to Rall at the end, that merely shows he and Callejo did an excellent job of telling a story. As more folks read it or when this book is filmed (yes, I said that twice), I expect that Rall's exploits during his "annus coitus" will rub up a tight debate on the ownership and exchange of sex and the benefits of truly unregulated capitalism.

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