THE LAST WORD - 86 AMERICAN EPITAPHS.
The idea is brilliant. ( no wonder the author gives himself credit in the byline ). Write epitaphs, in a few lines of pithy poetry, draw the departed’s portrait in antique black and white, evocative of ancient relief cutting, throw in birth/death dates for epoch and life span and Voila!. A collection of utter simplicity and mesmerizing effect. What could be more deflating to our egotistical nature than this gallery of dreams deferred and defeated by the absurdly talented California caricaturist and draftsman, J. Daniel Abel.
Consider one Omar Levon Polk, 1947-1966, his image and his last words.
I seen a twister pick up a barn
I seen a comet with a tail
I seen a crazy man
fuck a wild goat
But I never seen nothing
Like viet nam
Study that face draped in shadows, one frightened or fearless eye looking out from under a visor-rolled floppy hat, waving his M-16 at a flickering shadow in the wild bush. He hears the bullet - thwack! In his back.
In Abel’s pithy introduction he states there’s no sense in explaining the book, it explains itself, but while anything might be chiseled, some nuggets should be. This, lo, is the art of the epitaph, distilling an insight about any given person “down to it’s poetic essence”.
Abel’s people are us, dunce, dreamer, doomed dog, and ne’er do well, American style. The earliest birth date is 1799, commemorating the arrival of elderess Hadie may small, who sailed on from this world a mere 114 years later, no doubt for taking up the shaker way. The last is the self-christened “Vampira” Smith born 1977, dead in 1994. The parting shot (her’s? her family’s? her therapist’s?) “Whatever”.
Abel’s sources are more or less historical, but Abel is no name dropper. His folks are hookers and spinsters, bruisers and losers. Nary a famous face, nor hardly so much an also-ran among them. Witness one Jasper “Jawbreaker” bork, 1930-1977
“It don’t matter
how tough you are
if you never get a main event
your a bum”
You can trace a rural, racially diverse, off the interstate, wrong side of the tracks America in these images. Small town nobodies and dazed hippies, washed up fighters, philosophical bums and sad soldiers. Even Abel’s old man, John Melvin, gets a cameo.
We all shine on.
it’s a peen to the lower ranks, fun and fatalistic, replete with out dated hair-dos, thrift store duds, dopey grins and empty stares.
Such a radishy sense of humor as Abel’s fits our epoch of diminished means and returns. He offers the package minded playing card immortality. Indeed the more of us there are (six billion last count) the more of us who need remembering. Not everyone can have an Athenian temple, or merits one, thus the Abel epitaph, cut-rate, down and dirty, one size fits all, do it yourself. But try being as dead-on about life as Abel.
Since were all headed for the boneyard, why not enjoy the simulacrum of an epitaph, the metonymic morsel. All you get is a line or so and a mug-shot. Don’t bother with the dates, We’ll fill those in later. And get it right, You may not want the coil of Abel’s lacerating wit or the pathos of his dark philosophy.
Thomas Larson is a nationally recognized Critic and essayist.
Paperbound - 94 Pages - 86 Illustrations - B/W