This Side of Jordan
Written by Monte Schulz
Published by Fantagraphics
Fantagraphics has been publishing comics and comics criticism for nearly thirty years now, yet it was just a few years ago that co-founder Gary Groth got to achieve one of his goals when the company worked with writer Alexander Theroux to publish the literary-minded novel (note the lack of “graphic” before the word) Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual. Now, Monte Schultz – son of arguably the most famous cartoonist ever, Charles (Peanuts) Schulz – becomes the second writer to publish a prose novel with the august comics publisher.
This Side of Jordan is the first installment of Monte Schulz’s “great American novel,” an interconnected trilogy of narratives that all fall under the umbrella title Crossing Eden. Jordan’s Alvin Pendergast, a young man suffering a relapse of tuberculosis in the Midwest in 1929, elects to hitch a ride with a mysterious stranger traveling out of town. He has no idea why he does it; he just can’t imagine staying on the farm, perhaps going back to the sanitarium where his illness was previously treated. His benefactor, Chester, is a conman, rum runner and a killer. Shortly into their “partnership,” an hour before Chester enlists Alvin to abet a bank robbery, Alvin meets Rascal, a dwarf desperate to escape his own circumstances.
Long poetic passages typify Schulz’s writing, who exhibits a focus on crafting particular scenes and letting the theme of the novel come together of its own accord. There are some wonderful passages throughout the book, and Schulz has a knack for putting together some attractive paragraphs. As a narrative, Jordan seems to wander occasionally, however, as Schulz indulges himself in these wandering poetic sequences during several of Alvin and Rascal’s encounters on the road. Small meetings turn into extended sequences whose impact on the protagonist is far less than the page count would indicate.
The last of the main trio introduced, Rascal, takes up the challenge of carrying the narrative for long segments, as Alvin broods discontentedly but lacks the will or wits to find a way out of his circumstances, and the vile Chester sets out on his own to pursue an unknown agenda. Fortunately, Rascal is witty and intelligent, a verbose teller of elaborate family yarns, an amateur philosopher who latches on to his way out of his aunt’s home, but now finds himself looking for another escape hatch.
The research Schulz has done gives an unmistakable air of authenticity to Jordan’s setting and social mores. It’s not difficult for readers to follow the narrative, but you’re unmistakably immersed in the culture of Missouri and Kansas of the late 1920s. The roles of church, education, and agrarian living are stamped all over every paragraph. The authenticity of the moment transports the reader to Alvin’s time and Alvin’s world, settling you into the feeling of inevitability and inescapable fate that haunts Alvin throughout the novel. His sickness, his inability to communicate, and his lack of imagination to see better options for himself all come through crystal clearly.
Monte Schulz has proven that his father isn’t the only Schulz with considerable storytelling talent. This Side of Jordan is a strong vision of the American Heartland at a time when America was a little less jaded, yet many in the country had already developed a malaise of directionlessness. Schulz manages to capture a moment in history, a piece of humanity in transition. It’s bleak, but funny, and smartly written. It may not have any pictures, but readers of good fiction should appreciate what Schulz has accomplish.