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RANK 'N FILE - LIFE AND DEATH FOR THE AMERICAN UNDERCLASS

All of poverty’s ugly pathology is abuzz in Rank ‘n File, John Daniel Abel’s sad and poignant collection of speaking images. His previous marvel was The Last Word: 76 American Epitaphs. 

 

Self-hatred, child abuse, (Abel’s folk detail, loathe, and ultimately justify it), self-annihilation trauma, fistfights, crack, and drunkenness, post-Iraq /Afghanistan limb-loss or brain damage, racism, prostitution, crap-food diets, drug dealing, union-hating, homelessness, physical and mental disabilities, Wal-Mart slavery, anti-intellectualism, and, at last the Lord Jesus. 

 

Only you can save our sorry ass now.

 

But such subject matter, while predictably déclassé, is just the headline and, if we look only at the headline, such a view may overwhelm the impact of Abel’s drawings, which alternately ennoble and tease his quarry. The thing that strikes me in this book’s highly selective quotation and drawing is this mandala of emotion, outrage, blame, sadness, hatred, fury, and shame. The graphics lend power to Abel’s characters with an intensity much greater than the words alone could accomplish. Plus there’s a kind of shared labor in marrying word to image: Abel gets uncomfortably close to what’s eating them, him, and America.

 

Abel’s material is in your face. He has terrible manners. He wants you to confront the worst of the worst, the most beat-up of the beaten-up. He wants you to confront what he’s confronting and is conflicted by. He’s saturating us with an unblinkingly raw look at the beastliness of American life as, I would hope, most of us don’t know it.

 

The common denominator is, of course, privilege, supposed and actual, that adheres to those who have money. Take it to the bank: All quoted and quartered graphically here (save for one embittered school teacher) may despise the pretensions of wealth, but not so much the wealthy.  How come? The irony is the rich got theirs, often as not, via luck or fraud or inheritance. But who cares?  The white laborer may well despise his Latino counterpart, but admire the corporate robber baron who exploits both of them. 

 

So what’s Abel up to? Is he exploiting the exploited? Confirming our basest bigoted notions? Embarrassing us with our most stalwart prejudices?

 

I’m not sure. I just find it all fascinating, like a tent city next to a gated golf course. Abel, mines the tradition of such humanist-satirists as Honore Daumier and R. Crumb. He double-winds the rubber band around sympathy and attack. There’s tension between what these people believe about America and the increasingly grim reality of how they live. Suffice it to say there is a colossus of irreconcilable emotions in this book, as one would expect the exploited to bear.

 

T.L. 

90 pages - B/W - Paperback - $12  Avalible under the BOOKSTORE button, home page.  

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