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The Reading Life: Joe Ollmann's 'Mid-Life' blues

March 10, 2011 |  6:00 am

Mid-lifeOn the acknowledgments page of Joe Ollmann's graphic novel, "Mid-Life," there's a portrait of the artist as an old man, talking to his young son. "Sam," he says, "I'm gonna draw myself old and fat in this new semi-fictitious comic book. Won't that be hilarious?" To which the kid responds (in a thought bubble only): "Oh, Lord."

What you make of such a moment pretty much predicts how you'll respond to Ollmann's graphic roman a clef. As for me, I laugh every time I read it, less in hilarity than in a kind of grimly comic solidarity.

"Mid-Life"  is exactly what its title promises: a portrait of the indignities of middle age. Through Ollmann's fictional alter ego, a 40-year-old photo editor named John, we experience all the petty degradations of adulthood, from parenting to the working life. When, in the middle of the book, John complains about the cat his twentysomething daughter has dumped on him, his plaintive wail -- "Why do I have to be the one to deal with everything? Why is this all my responsibility?" -- is that of every parent who has been left holding the bag. But it is her answer ("Because you're the adult here") that truly resonates, for this is one of the key tensions of Ollmann's story: that no matter how old John's kids get, he will never stop being Dad.

Ollmann knows this territory firsthand; like his character, he had daughters young, and then a son with his second wife. Yet by deciding to frame his book as fiction, he opens the aperture, highlighting the universal in the particular, and drawing us into the story's big concerns. These involve work and family, to be sure, but more to the point, they have to do with compromise and mortality, frailty and age. It's tricky territory because it could easily get self-indulgent, but Ollmann almost never falters, portraying a life that is no less fraught for being relatively mundane.

John laments the slow collapse of his body, his tendency to drink too much. He worries about his daughters' happiness and their ability to strike out on their own. He obsesses over his invisibility, the way women don't notice him anymore. It's all so common, you could almost overlook it as the substance of art, were it not for the acuity and grace with which Ollmann recreates John's world.

Eventually, John does something stupid, as we know he must, and the book shifts from a documentary account into more of a narrative.

This is where "Mid-Life" could go south, but Ollmann avoids such pratfalls by never letting his character -- any of his characters -- off the hook. Working in small images (each page is broken into nine concise frames), he encodes a vivid intimacy into the very structure of the project, drawing mostly closeups, pulling us into every scene. By the closing pages, it feels as if we have been there, as if John's great midlife misadventure, in some sense anyway, partly belongs to us.

That is what narrative is supposed to do -- to make us empathize and identify. It's not the tale that is important, but the willingness of the teller to be revealed. Ollmann understands this, and his honesty makes John a kind of middle-aged everyman, caught somewhere between the illusions of youth and the desolation of the grave.

"My positive take on all this," he tells us at the end of the book, "is that my body is falling apart. Perfectly normal for a man of my age.... And at my time of life, a dignified man is measured less by his physicality and more on the basis of his intellect and achievements.... I plan to work on developing these two."

-- David L. Ulin