Home After Dark by David Small is an evocative coming-of-age graphic novel about the dark side of the American Dream in the late 1950s/early 1960s, which juxtaposes this supposed golden era with the realities that many faced.
Covering two years, the book starts in Ohio as thirteen-year-old Russell’s mother runs away with another man, leaving him and his father alone. His morose hard-drinking father packs the two of them up and heads to California for a new start. However, the state of golden opportunities does not shine for them, and they settle in a non-descript inland town where his father gets a job working at the San Quentin jail. The two briefly rent rooms from a Chinese couple, the Mah’s, before moving into a small tract home the father buys using money from the GI Bill, as he is a Korean War veteran. Russell befriends Willie and Kurt in his neighborhood, who offer him a toxic view of masculinity and ruin any chance he has to develop a friendship with schoolmate Warren, who is struggling with his identity also. During their second summer in California, his father abandons him, leaving him essentially an orphan. While the Mah’s take him in, Russell betrays them in addition to Warren, to Russell’s great regret. While you have great sympathy for Russell, he is far from a likable character, and this haunting tale will make you look at the nostalgia of yesteryear with a different lens.
Small’s artwork is done in black and white with a grey overwash. His often wordless panels flow well throughout the chapters. Closeups of faces convey emotions effectively, as do the shadowy dream sequences. Despite the excellent art found in the book, I believe the cover picture does the novel a disservice. A distorted picture of Russell does not convey what the book is about, and might actually turn people off. I bought it for my library’s graphic novel collection because I thought so highly of Small’s earlier memoir Stiches, and although I have it displayed outward for our patrons to pick up, it has not circulated at all. I’ve seen another cover available, and I wish I had that one at my library, but this was the only cover I saw at the time I ordered it.
This disquieting book was a melancholy read and doesn’t wrap up things neatly. While you have a clue of the choice Russell will make, you know he has a tough road ahead of him no matter what.