Review by Allen Rubinstein
Ah, the Reagan era. As historical periods go, it’s rarely one that’s looked back on with a romantic glow. Its rejection of the 1960s and 1970s culture of protest, peace, and compassion could not be more stark. The emerging generation caught in the meat grinder of the global embrace of conservatism quickly learned it was every man and women for themselves.
Case in point, Ted Rall, future graphic novelist who, in 1984 no less, found himself suddenly thrown out of Columbia University’s engineering program. A conspiracy of Orwellian bureaucracy, falling water balloons, a stoner best friend, and a killer wart left him unemployed and homeless on the streets of Manhattan. The Year of Loving Dangerously is Rall’s chronicle of one dumbfounding summer when the political cartoonist and controversy magnet discovered a somewhat unconventional method of survival.
His story is structured simply, opening with his life falling to pieces and in the final pages, putting them back together. In between there is sex – lots of it. More sex than most men get in a lifetime. Rall, in the most humane way any user could, spends every night of this period of his life bedding women for access to food, clothing and shelter. He rotates nights, calculates odds, lies judiciously, and rides waves of emotional fallout, both of himself and his litany of “girlfriends”.
The really remarkable thing about The Year of Loving Dangerously, given Rall’s conduct, is how sympathetically he comes across, making morally awful decisions out of pure necessity while feeling terrible about sleeping with many beautiful women. The tension here between fantasy (the story rarely fails to be titillating), the reality of the streets and the piteous journey of a young man making commerce out of intimacy makes Dangerously a compelling read. It coasts along themes of culture, politics, history, commerce, relationships, the tapestry of human needs and the cost of living a quid pro quo lifestyle in a tight, surprisingly funny 130 pages. What’s more, the book’s final moment puts the perfect button of melancholy irony on a very satisfying package.
One choice, more than any other, contributes to the success of this book: Rall declined to draw it. Whatever his talents, almost everyone agrees he’s a terrible, terrible artist – drawing every figure as a nearly identical mess of blocky, unhuman shapes. It’s a testament to his sharp writing that his self-drawn graphic novels are as strong as they are. With this more emotional territory, however, Rall’s art would be inadequate, so he enlists Pablo G. Callejo, regular partner with Rob Vollmar on Bluesman. Apart from a few faces that are hard to tell apart, Callejo’s fully painted art is ideal – lush, colorful and attractive, just polished enough to be real, yet rough enough to capture the look and feel of 1980s New York City. His grasp of anatomy, obviously important here, is impeccable.
Ted Rall is well known as an iconoclast who’s spent a career savaging the likes of Ronald Reagan. If you’ve read his other autobiographical work, My War with Brian, you know that he’s an operator, a hardened cynic and real piece of work. You don’t have to like Rall to enjoy The Year of Loving Dangerously; in fact, it will most likely confirm whatever feelings you came with, as it makes those feelings deeper and more complicated. Few would have responded to his situation the way he did, and the result is a multi-layered tale that could only have happened in that pre-AIDS time and place. Whoever he’s angered, Rall’s one hell of a writer.
And let’s face it, the guy’s got serious game.