BOOK NOTES: Marlette is triple dipping

‘Kudzu’ cartoonist comes out with his first novel.

By: Joan Ruddiman
   Doug Marlette, the cartoonist, is known in his field as a "double dipper." His comic strip "Kudzu" appears daily in newspapers all over the country. He also produces a daily political cartoon syndicated through New York Newsday. Now with the publication of his first novel, he is triple dipping. Trust me that his ink is not watered down a bit.
   Marlette won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for editorial cartooning and, as a cartoonist received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, which was a first. He’s been writing for years, but always as a cartoonist about cartooning. His 1991 "In Your Face," was my textbook when teaching the art of political cartooning to eighth-graders.
   He begins:
   "If Elvis had drawn, he would have drawn cartoons. Good cartoons are like visual rock and roll. They hit you primitively and emotionally, turning you every which way but loose. There is something wild and untamed about the best of them, raw and vaguely threatening … Unruly, impertinent and bristling with attitude, they just won’t mind."
   Which is why, Marlette, notes in this raucous introduction, "the fastidious New York Times refuses to run them." He adds, "As Times editor Max Frankel said, sitting across from me at the Pulitzer Prize ceremonies, ‘The problems with cartoonists is you can’t edit them.’ "
   "Exactly!" Marlette exudes.
   It was not surprising, therefore, to read about Marlette the novelist, not in a book review, but as a news item. Seems that his neighbors in his small North Carolina town are bent out of shape over this book he’s written that is populated with characters that are much too familiar. Oh boy! Marlette strikes again as irreverent, irrepressible as ever, only now in a new venue.
   I bought the book that day.
   "The Bridge" is full of Marlette. Just as Kudzu is a cartoon version of the teen-age Doug, Pickard Cantrell, cartoonist, appears to be his fictionalized alter ego. Marlette began his career at the Charlotte Observer and hits the big time in New York City. Pick moved to New York with the "Sun," from the Charlotte "Sentinel." Marlette has thrown a few barbs at the Catholic Church in his time, as does Pick. However, whereas Marlette grouses a bit when wary editors have pulled his more controversial cartoons Pick carries it a bit further.
   The opening dramatic sequence establishes a submerged yet simmering culture war. Pick is called on the carpet by his newspaper’s top gun, Bob Garvis, the quintessential WASP northeasterner, who is unhappy with Pick’s public denunciation of how Garvis handled a controversial cartoon. A war of words and wit ends with Garvis literally on the carpet, bashed and bloodied after he calls Pick a "cracker."
   By the luck of the draw, Pick comes before a judge who also disdains the smarmy Garvis. With a hint of a smile and the aside, "Guess he won’t be playing in the Club’s golf outing this weekend, eh?" the judge puts Pick on probation and sets him free.
   Well, not completely free, as Pick now has to answer to Cameron, his beautiful and no-nonsense wife who makes the decision to move them back to North Carolina. She figures an elegant old house that needs restoring will keep Pick busy and out of trouble, as small-town life will insulate their young son from his father’s infamy.
   Pick has mixed feelings about being back in the South among his large and quite dysfunctional family headed by the indomitable Mama Lucy. His father’s mother is now 90, and ornerier as ever. As much as he tries to avoid her, the out-of-work Pick is called upon to cater to Mama Lucy. As he tends her yard and retrieves her misbehaved bird, Pick begins to fill in the pieces of her life — and his — that he never knew and certainly never understood.
   Marlette draws heavily on the story of his own grandmother, Grace Pickard, in creating a mystery romance that straddles a century and generations of neighbors. At the center of his fiction is the little known history of the Carolina cotton mills that erupted in horrible violence in the early 1930s.
   The history is important to know, and the story is highly entertaining. The book is a winner. Oh, but what about the neighbors? If folks in Marlette’s hometown are finished playing the "who are you in his book" game, they should enjoy the image of life in North Carolina Marlette portrays. As much as he seems not to like New Yorkers, he sure thinks kindly on those southern folk.
   And they like him. The "advance praise" blurbs that fill the back cover read like a who’s who of southern literati. Pat Conroy, Rick Bragg, Anne River Siddons and others exult in the power of the story and the storyteller.
   The praise is justified. "The Bridge" is more than an entertaining story. In digging into the by-gone culture of the mill towns where lines were drawn between the "lintheads" and mill owners, Marlette scratches the itch of our own society that is as class conscious but less honest about it.
Joan Ruddiman is a teacher and friend of the Allentown Public Library.