Review by Frank Plowright
The second of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County stories is that of Lou Lebeuf, now old, deaf, and experiencing dementia. He lives alone in deteriorating conditions, swilling whiskey, his only visitor the nurse assigned to him. As his present-day situation evolves, he drifts back into the refuge of the past, re-living his life and the consequences of his one great mistake.
The day in 1951 that Lou meets brother Vince and his girlfriend Beth at Toronto’s Union Station is one of the happiest of his life. Lou is already a professional hockey player with a poor team, but 18 year old Vince, star of his junior team, transforms the Grizzlies from perennial losers to championship contenders. Vince enjoys his hockey, but his ambition is to return to the farm that needs tended, marry Beth and start a family, and while awed, he’s not swayed by the seductions of a large city.
After one successful season Lou is best man at Vince and Beth’s wedding. Vince remains in Essex County to follow his dream, while Lou returns to Toronto, a career-ending injury and a solitary life. He doesn’t set foot in Essex County for a further 20 years.
As he did in Tales from the Farm, Lemire takes isolation as his topic, displaying that it’s a condition equally applicable to a city. Ghost Stories, though, is marginally less satisfying because while the characters in Tales from the Farm are all understood, Lou remains an enigma in some respects. Fair enough, he’s the one remembering incidents, but a great question mark hangs over him. He’s not a withdrawn individual, and has a job in which he’s always engaging with the public, so why is it that he remains alone? If it’s due to guilt or obsession, this is never illuminated.
The heart of the story is the relationship between the Lebeuf brothers, how it fractures and never truly heals despite a later reconciliation. This is set against the heartbreaking background of what Lou has become. At it’s very best, Ghost Stories induces a feeling of wanting to hug the wife and kids and be thankful for what you have, and that’s not in a cloying, sentimental manner. When the Grizzlies turn up near the end it’s a real lump in throat moment that few graphic novels manage to pull off.
Lemire’s black and white art is blocky and angular, which is a style that won’t appeal to everyone, but perfectly suits the tone of his stories. A specific strength is portraying his cast experiencing that wistful recollection or moment of regret, and conveying other emotional states via his art. Lou’s a downbeat guy, and as there’s only one occasion post-1951 when he’s pictured almost smiling that moment imparts a powerful impact.
There are connections between this and Tales from the Farm, but they’re transitory, merely offering a nod to those who’ve read the previous book. The same applies to The Country Nurse, which follows, and all three are gathered as Essex County.