For those of us who grew up on The Phantom Tollbooth and later came to know Jules Feiffer as an illustrator and storyteller of adult tales, it is still a bit disconcerting to see his characters acting out a frantic tale of murder, twisted family relationships, and war in Kill My Mother. Rendered in his defining style of loosely assured lines, Feiffer plays with noir conventions and packs so many twists and turns into the narrative ride that I was surprised all over again during re-readings.
Kill My Mother plays out in two sections of many short chapters. Part 1, set in 1933, revolves around Elsie, looking for the murderer of her husband by working for his best friend, Neil Hammond, a private investigator. Elsie’s daughter, Annie, hates her mother and takes any opportunity to cause trouble, along with her best friend and scapegoat, Artie. Three tall and gorgeous women come into Elise, Neil, and Annie’s lives—one woman hires Neil to find another, who doesn’t want to be found. Meanwhile, the third woman, mute but tough, intervenes in Annie’s life for good, only to witness a violent act that inspires her to sing alone in the moonlight.
Part 2 opens up with another song, ten years later—the third woman is masquerading as Lady Veil, to great acclaim. Annie is busy producing a radio program that mocks Artie, who doesn’t appreciate it as he toils as a war hero in the South Pacific. Elsie, now a PR person in Hollywood, gets caught up in the same intrigue as before, in ways she never imagined, and it all ends in a stage in the jungle with a firefight.
Believe me when I say that there are many nuances of how these characters become tangled up in each other’s lives that would be boring for me to write out in a review. However, on the heavy cream paper of Kill My Mother, shown in Feiffer’s action-filled lines that give even the most hyperbolized bodies a solid life, and reproduced in a watercolor that at first looks black and white, but is really a subtle world of variations in green, brown, white, blue, and black, the story takes on an unstoppable momentum. The book is handsome and large, so the handwritten style of the type is easy to read, and the cover is embossed with illustrations.
Feiffer plays with the page expertly. He makes a boxing match a series of feints by two bodies laid out on a white background with just enough ringside commentary by each iteration to spell out the meat of the fight. When Elsie is menaced by three men on a nighttime street corner while walking to the liquor store, he uses different perspectives to play up the psychological effect on the character, showing her silent approach and passage, bringing her face to the forefront to magnify her self-consciousness, and then moving behind the men and making them loom over her as she enters the store. Throughout the book, touches like these show that a masterful hand is in charge, elevating a pulpy story to a more touching level. Indeed, Kill My Mother ends on an emotional note that differs from what came before, but works because of the setup that Feiffer has done in between the almost over-the-top situations that came before.
Kill My Mother
by Jules Feiffer
Liveright Publishing, 2014