Monday, August 24, 2015

“Mixing With Us Normal People” -- A Review of Pat Kelley’s FEDOR

Imagine a boy completely covered head to toe by a thick growth of silky yellow hair. Is he man or animal?”

Let’s face the truth. We are constantly making snap assumptions about people based on appearances. It happens all the time. In an instant.

According to an article published on the Association for Psychological Science website:

A series of experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov reveal that all it takes is a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face, and that longer exposures don’t significantly alter those impressions (although they might boost your confidence in your judgments). Their research is presented in their article “First Impressions,” in the July issue of Psychological Science.

Read that again. A tenth of a second.

The reasons for this are myriad, but most of the research points to that basic survival mechanism constantly operating subconsciously in all of us. We need to decide as quickly as possible whether or not this individual may be the one who is going to shove an ice pick in our eye socket, and, if so, we need to be prepared to engage in either fight or flight.

The truth of this instantaneous impression making, though, has led to a number of home-spun fire-side adages like “never judge a book by its cover” or “all that glitters is not gold” or “there are daggers in men’s smiles” -- we know that sometimes our initial assumptions about people can be wrong, sometimes dangerously so.

Like Donald Trump.

Although, on second thought, he may be exactly what we think he is.

I promise I will get to the point, the review of Pat Kelley’s wonderful new book Fedor in just a moment, but indulge me just a little bit further first.

I’d like to tell the following story:

When I was very young I went to the Texas State Fair. At least I think it was the Texas State Fair. My memory is hazy on this point. I was really young. I vaguely remember being led by the hand by a young girl whom I gather I was friends with or something. I think she said something like, “Let’s go see the Freaks.” And she pulled me towards a small tent that, I think, was standing apart from the rest of the Fair. I kinda want to say that I asked her, “What are Freaks?” And I really want her to have said, “You know … weirdos. People not like you or me.”

I kind of remember her expressing disappointment when we found out that the only “freak” at the show that day was the Smallest Bearded Woman In The World. There is the thought that she paid for my admission. I pretty much remember not wanting to go in.

What I absolutely remember, though, was what greeted me inside.

Sitting in the middle of the tent on a chair was a tiny, wrinkled woman in a gingham dress. She had some straggly hairs emanating from her chin and cheeks and was looking down at the floor. As we stood in front of her, she looked up and looked me directly in the eye. The stare she gave me hit me hard as I was young and nobody had ever looked at me like that before. I remember her eyes clearly and now, with my adult sensibilities, I can interpret that look as one of anger, resignation, and sadness all in perfect balance, but as I child I just saw pain, the source of which I could not fathom. Because of my upbringing, all of my innocent empathy naively flowed back to her at the same time I became petrified by what was happening. It was a colossal moment in my childhood as fear and sympathy got tangled up in confusion and powerlessness.

Then the girl I was with pointed at this small woman sitting in the chair and yelled, “FREAK!” The small woman’s eyes shifted and a weird smile cracked on her face. The girl crushed my hand in hers and, with one of those scream laughs that only children can muster, she pulled me out of the tent.

I remember crying. I don’t remember anyone asking me what was wrong or comforting me.

Looking back at that memory now, I realize that I was connecting with the humanity of the woman in the chair while the girl I was with was seeing her as an object, a show, a freak.

Needless to say, my relationship with those who are “odd”, “off-beat”, “different”, or “weird” has been complicated every since.

All of which brings me now, finally, to the review promised in the title of this piece.  

Pat Kelley’s new book from Hic + Hoc Publications, Fedor, is, at its heart, a sweet and satisfying love story that spans 20 years at the turn of the 20th century. It tells of the fictional romance between the real Fedor Jeftichew, a young man who was famously given the stage name Jojo the Dog Faced Boy by P.T. Barnum, and the fictional Helena, “the perfectly normal daughter” of a bearded woman and an alligator man who later chooses to cover herself from head to toe in tattoos.

Yes. As much as it is a love story that fits into the historical romance genre, it is also a story about “freaks”. And, in this, Fedor transcends its genre to offer something more, something true and universal. It’s something that I directly related to given my story above, but it’s also something we can all relate to if we are at all human beings.

This is a book about connecting as much as it is a book about outsiders. It touches on questions of identity and appearances, but also sacrifices and longing. Kelley’s beautiful and light cartooning adds a distance to its heavy subject matter, and the brown watercolor washes that cover every page augments both its historical conceit and its sense of grounding in the real world.

While the concept of “the other” is explored to a degree, as it must when a narrative revolves around “Freaks”, Kelley uses this theme to add emotional heft to the central love story. Certainly Fedor and Helena have an outsider’s life (“You shouldn’t be out in the real world like this. Mixing with us normal people”) and, as such, are able to make commentary on the traditional social order, but it is their “otherness” that magnifies what they share, together, while it also provides the dramatic crux and keeps the reader on their side regardless of what happens.

For once not let anything get in the way” is the tagline to this story moreso than anything else.

Kelley emphasises this by playing with time. Events are not told in chronological order, but rather are arranged to accentuate the dramatic tension. Kelley interrupts the flow of the narrative with flashbacks as a way of developing character and assert the emotional core of the story. Because of this, Fedor requires a bit of a careful read, but that sort of active participation brings the reader further into the story.

Fedor is almost like a “What if” fanfic that tells its tale with humor, heart, and soul. You are constantly rooting for these characters as they come together and the final panel is rewarding in a deep and graceful way. By using “Freaks” to tell a truly human story, Pat Kelley is being subversive while being inclusive.

In a way, Pat Kelley has created a book for the boy that I was when I stood there in the tent, but really, he has created a book for the man I am today. I think he’s made this book for you too.

You can (and should) pick up a copy of Fedor from the Hic + Hoc store.

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