I had a roommate in college who used to leave guests doubled over on the floor with a hilarious cultural critique of what he deemed the eight basic plot lines of the Family Circus comic strip. All those laughs came rushing back in sinister spades while reading J. Robert Lennon's slightly wacky, partly dark, but often charming second novel The Funnies. Lennon has imagined the life of characters in Family Follies, a thinly veiled Family Circus. Rather than the placid, domestic space of a cartoon where inevitably the dog does something cute and everyone get along, Lennon has embodied his fictional family with phobias, neuroses, bitter sibling rivalries, and eerie family secrets all doused in a generous splash of alcohol. But from this veritable cornucopia of 1990s dysfunction comes a rather winning novel, one as equal on laughs as it is on probing steadiness.
The protagonist and voice of the novel is Tim Mix, the second son of five children, who inherits the Family Follies strip from his now-dead father, Carl (he dies in the first line of the book). While loved by countless millions across the country, Carl was not the portrait of goodness portrayed in the strip, and his real family bears little resemblance to the idealized cartoon. The bulk of the novel traces Tim's transformation from naifish conceptual artist to a bona fide cartoonist. It doesn't always go well. As he moves back into his boyhood house, Tim not only fights family demons, but also has to worry about Ken Dorn, a rival cartoonist who wants the Family Follies strip so badly he often stalks Tim, much like Claire Quilty in Nabokov's Lolita. Lennon's voice is easy-going, and the narrative clips along nicely, often effectively using underlying familial tension as a type of unseen or understated character. Tim's siblings are interesting and well drawn, especially Pierce, the 28-year-old paranoid who never moved out of his parent's home. Not as successful, however, is the figure of Dot Mix, the mother, now in a nursing home in the shroud of alcohol-induced senility. Pierce and Tim's desire to get her out of the home doesn't necessarily add to the more successful, detailed, and dynamic relationships in the book. But this relationship, as well as a sometimes disjointed last third of the book, does not ruin an otherwise excellent novel. Lennon has tremendous skills of description, providing the right amount of detail without becoming obsessive. His obviously thorough research into the business and culture of comic strips pays superb dividends as Tim attends a comic strip convention in one of the book's more memorable and funny chapters. The Funnies may not always be funny, but Lennon's balanced delivery, his inherent whimsy, and his refusal to brush the darker aspects of the book under the rug gives The Funnies its impressive energy and nuanced psychological strength.
Mark Luce is a writer in Lawrence, Kansas.