Home After Dark

The ferocious arch of two leonine jaws framing a boy in the middle of an argument. The maw of a tunnel from which three boys fish flyaway baseballs. The dismal interior of a near-empty house, growing progressively darker as the bills stop being paid: the lights refusing to shed light, the phones dead. David Small, author of the best-selling graphic memoir Stitches, layers these and other images into a harrowing, claustrophobic tale of young manhood in his new novel Home After Dark.

After his mom leaves with the town football star, Russ and his dad also leave Youngstown, Ohio, for California, eventually moving in with the Mah family, who are unfailingly kind and generous despite the anti-Chinese racism of the local white townspeople. At thirteen, Russ teeters precariously on the edge of adolescence. He’s bullied at school, but befriended by the oddball Warren McCaw, a friendship Russ abandons after Warren reveals to Russ that he’s queer. Instead, Russ takes up with the more popular Willie and Kurt. While Willie is kind, Kurt is a conscienceless daredevil whose homophobia flares violently in his own mission to assert his masculinity. When Russ’ father stops coming home, Russ finds himself trying to “live without hurting anyone” in a world that mostly shows him nothing but cruelty and neglect.

Though labeled simply “a novel” on the book’s cover, Home After Dark is emphatically a novel of images rather than words. While it would be easy to describe the well-framed panels and pages as cinematic, the real impact of Small’s illustrations comes from their very stillness. Reading Home After Dark feels much like flipping through a grim photo album, where each photograph contains a story simultaneously trapped and preserved by its frozen depiction, leaving one powerless to change what happened, able now only to witness and feel a pinch of discomfort at the beauty of the chilling images. Motifs of caves, cages, animals—and dead animals—are carefully refracted across the pages of the book, standing out evocatively amidst the long planar angles of 1950s suburbs and interiors.

The story is a depressing one, where the cudgel of white, heteronormative masculinity crushes one character after another. The Mah family are positioned as the one indefatigable force of kindness. While not necessarily unrealistic that Russ found no succor from the white men who otherwise made up his social sphere, it is nonetheless problematic that the only non-white characters in Home After Dark are positioned as the white main character’s reliable helpmeets, taking Russ in after his dad leaves, giving him a job, and welcoming him back even after he steals from them. The inclusion of animals killed in sadistic ways and violent homophobic bullying, as well as some drinking and sex, makes this a book best for older teens. Imperfect and beautiful, quiet and powerful, Home After Dark is a graphic novel ripe for reading and re-reading, inviting discussion of whiteness, bullying, insider/outsider status, homophobia and racism, abandonment, and what childhood—and manhood—really mean.

Home After Dark
By David Small
ISBN: 9780871403155
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

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