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A GRAPHIC MEMOIR OF ILLICIT LOVE, with shades of Samuel Roth

Or, an almost invisible wink. On the dust jack of Bill Griffith’s exceptional graphic memoir _Invisible Ink_, the woman on the cover—an image of his mother, Barbara-- is winking. A wink is a gesture, some of them jolly ones, esp. between mother and son. This one has many meanings, for the artist and the viewer. The book is an achievement full of subtle ironies. It is a son’s story, a father’s story, and a story of illicit love between two intelligent suburbanites who deeply love each other, while being able to live in two worlds, both of which are deeply ingrained in their souls and to both of which they pay deep attention and respect.

They are modern urbanites, “split-souled,” as Heine said of himself. The term characterizes Samuel Roth as well (in this story, no one is Jewish, but the characters are all very 20th century Americans). The love story is recorded movingly in Barbara’s own MS novel, “Departed Acts,” and in her diaries. Like Sam, she was a compulsive writer. Griffith interviews relatives, visits archives, and recalls his own teenage years in order to complete a drama which is too human a document to be nailed down with a summary—or any—judgement.

The person remarkably like Roth is Lawrence Lariar, a cartoon artist who always “went for the sale,” and a writer of paperback mystery novels. He had Sam’s persistence, and an ability to find a niche in popular culture from which he could deal. He knew the power of the prurient erotic turn-on. His cartoons are of big-breasted, leggy woman dressed in tight skirts and revealing sweaters, adorned by jewelry and the latest in hair styles, really not very different from those used to illustrate some of Roth’s mail order catalogues.

The balloons and captions are cheap instant gags: “I gave Jack an ultimatum—no more honeymooning until we get married”; “I never kiss on the first date. Why don’t you leave and come back in a few minutes?” In the background, middle aged men are often found peeking, with their hat flying off their heated bald spots. The above two quotes are from one of the many cartoon sets that paid for Lariar’s Freeport, L.I. home: Lady Chatterley’s Daughter (“the American female from puberty through the mating game”).

It is an act of courage on Griffith’s part to put these cartoons on the edges of the title page illustration of his winking mother. It makes less clear-thinking (and feeling) people queasy, perhaps, for the taboo against desire for the mother flares up resentment from the very center of one’s ego. I’m not saying that is the experience of the Bill in the story, but it is in the air, in the head.

One implication is Bill’s conception of Lariar as a substitute father. All he can do is dispense practical advice about “going for the sale.” As for his own father, for many years Bill dreamed of him as a shabby, lonely figure in the shadows of the street lamps such as Hopper sometimes drew. He son’s dream echoed with his dad’s apologies.

Lariar also wrote very good hard boiled crime novels. In this genre, unlike that of soft-core porno or meretricious “girls-goofs-and-gags” sketches, Lariar could explore another side of his experience: perseverance and its psychic costs, envy, betrayal, lust, and the irresistible femme fatale, all of which haunt the American male’s career.

Freeport was just about 10 miles from where the Griffiths lived, in Levittown. A writer herself, Barbara was happy to get a job as Lariar’s editor and secretary. He approached her respectfully regarding his feelings (actually, she was an attractive buxom woman not all that different from some of the females in his drawings). Barbara had not been intimate for years with Bill’s father; they quarreled often. He was dictatorial, and he could be physically abusive.

Despite reservations, Barbara accepted Lawrence’s invitation. It was a life-saving decision. As he proved himself repeatedly a gentle and knowing partner in bed, she fell more in love with him. Lariar loved women, as did Sam Roth, and as Roth, he was experienced and patient.

Like Roth, he was a voracious reader, and self-educated in what used to be called “arts and letters.” He proved to be an expert in modern art, and their museum trips were precious ways to be together. When Barbara’s husband died, she wanted Lariar to divorce his wife and marry her. This was the end of the affair. He would not—very similarly, Roth could have stayed in London with his lover Joan, who loved him so much, she walked the streets to get money when he was destitute. Both men committed acts that finally, were those of a “let down artist.” But that is only one perspective. As Lariar gets smaller in the distance, as Bill walks the subway platform at 42nd Street, as his dying mother tells her children to get rid of all her possessions except her novel and diary, there is a human element and sense of fulfilling struggle for joy that will not go away—as there is in Roth’s late poems. But Roth’s mystic faith in “the real world” and a spiritual destiny is unavailable to these taboo-breaking suburbanites.

In the graphic memoirist’s images and words, the perspectives of the lovers mix with the artist’s, his wife’s, and other interviewees. None of the darkness, the grief that must be lived with, the desires that must be experienced before inevitable departure of their source, are left unexplored.

_Invisible Ink_ is more disciplined and suggestive than Roth’s biographical writings, from “Count Me Among the Missing” through his prison memoirs to My Friend Yeshea.” But in both cases, the “departed acts” of people with dreams and the freedom to act them into being make those people memorable.
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