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Nostalgic For Noir? Feiffer's 'Kill My Mother' Is A Toxic Treat


This is FRESH AIR. Cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter and children's book illustrator and author Jules Feiffer has won a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award and an Obie. What worlds are left for him to conquer? His new book, "Kill My Mother," answers that question. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The title, "Kill My Mother," has about as much subtlety as a migraine. But Jules Feiffer isn't going for subtlety in this, his first graphic novel. Instead he's going for ricocheting bullets, imploding nuclear families, knuckle sandwiches, booze, broad's and paranoia gone ballistic. In short at the ripe old age of 85, Feiffer has returned the seedy comic strips, hard-boiled novels and B-movies of his youth. This time out he's going for noir. For anyone who loves the mean streets and mazelike plots of films like "The Big Sleep," "Kiss Me Deadly" and "Double Indemnity," "Kill My Mother" is an end of summer delight. Feiffer vacuum packs the iconic images and lingo of film noir into almost every frame of this "Hellzapoppin" storyline. There's the trench-coated, alcoholic detective, fast cars and even faster women. Characters sport classy names they don't make anymore like Normandie Drake and spout exclanations like, honest to galoshes. Best of all Feiffer's melodramatic narratives, like James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce," is a noir story dominated by dames. It would take a hack saw for me to slice through all the naughty subplots festooning this tale. But here's a skeletal summary - the story opens in 1933 in Bay City, the crooked town made legendary by Raymond Chandler. Our heroine, Elsie Hannegan, is the noble widow of a murdered cop. To keep body and soul together during the depression she works as a secretary to her dead husband's former best friend - a gumshoe named Hammond. Elsie's demon-seed teenage daughter, Annie, suspects her mother of sleeping with Hammond and shades of "Mildred Pierce" resents her for working outside the home. One day trouble walks into Hammond's office in the form of a tall, blonde selling a sob story about a missing person. Before this doozy of a tale about love-turned-homicidal wraps up, Feiffer has hopscotched to the 1940s to Hollywood canteen's boxing matches and swanky supper clubs. It should tell you something about how ingenious Feiffer's storyline is that the climax of this tale takes place on Tarawa Island in the Pacific, where U.S. Marines gather for a U.S.O. show in between fighting the Japanese in the jungle. I've been pitching "Kill My Mother" as Feiffer's inspired tribute to the crime-fiction and film noir of his youth. But the novel is also a tribute to Feiffer's versatility. As longtime fans of his work know, his characteristic drawing style often features a figure in isolation against a blank backdrop - usually delivering a light-bulb moment soliloquy on life. Not so here. As a graphic novel, "Kill My Mother" is of course sequential art. And every panel is cramped with shadows, rain, soot and fog. The face of our Detective Hammond, for instance, is little more than a knobby blur. As befits a man whose moral essence is murky. And speaking of blurry things - Feiffer has great fun toying with the sexual and even gender ambiguity that was often a latent element in the great noir tales. As a visual counterpart to all this free-floating fluidity of identity Feiffer overlaps dialogue, slip-slides action across two pages and otherwise trespasses boundary lines between panels of his illustrations. "Kill My Mother" is a toxic treat - a Mulligan stew of murder, desire and nostalgia for the noirs of yesteryear. Like Kudzuana (ph) gravestone, even by Feiffer's blunt title is growing on me.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Jules Feiffer's new graphic novel called "Kill My Mother." Maureen has her own new book coming out September 9 called "And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." I'm going to interview her about it the week it comes out. If you're looking for a book to read on vacation consider "The Great Gatsby." It's a classic for a good reason and it's short. And you'll probably enjoy it more now than you did in school. And you'll enjoy hearing Maureen talk about it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.