West Coast Blues by Jacques Tardi

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Fantagraphics; 80 pp., $18.99; Hardcover, B&W; ISBN: 9781606992951

There’s a remarkably spare and lean quality to the plot and characterization cooked up by Jean-Patrick Manchette’s West Coast Blues.  Despite an omnipresent narrator telling us exactly what was going to happen to protagonist George Gerfaut, the reader never really learns all that much about him other than his love of jazz.  He’s dipped into a nightmarish world where assassins were trying to kill him for reasons that weren’t clear to him, but reacted to the growing absurdity he faced by behaving in ever-more outlandish ways.  At the same time, the book is a sort of workplace comedy as we follow the increasingly exasperated assassins who have been paid by an arms dealer to kill Gerfaut, on the chance that he might be able to identify him after a car accident.  It’s a story that’s both grim and strangely detached (or at least restrained), eschewing the sort of cliches that an American might expect from a crime story.

If the text felt a bit detached, then Jacques Tardi added muscle, bone and fat to it with his delightfully chunky line.  There’s a sheer fleshiness to his characters that fairly assaulted the reader from the beginning, as we met arms dealer Alonso Emerich y Emerich sweatily masturbating to a copy of Playboy.  The beady eyes and bulbous noses indicated that these aren’t movie stars, just desperate and unpleasant men.  The scene where the assassins tried to drown Gerfaut in the ocean when he and his family were on vacation was an especially visceral one.  It’s ingeniously staged, as the assassins literally struck in broad daylight, wading up behind him and then striking him repeatedly and trying to drown him.  The beach was so crowded that it may as well have been empty in terms of how the crowd reacted.  Gerfaut’s way out was literally yanking down the swim trunks of one assailant and grabbing his balls, a scene rendered in lovingly fleshy detail by Tardi.

The next great scene came when Gerfaut realized that someone was trying to have him killed and left town.  The assassins intercepted a letter from him, tracked him to Paris and then tailed him to a gas station.  The way Tardi went from anticipation to sheer carnage came without warning to the reader: no big splash page, no modulation in panel construction—just bullets flying, blood spilled, fire raging and glass breaking.  The sequence was just three pages long, as Tardi saw no need to linger over acts of violence—they came and went with great speed.

This is the point of the book where it takes a rather sharp left turn, as Gerfaut fled into the forest to escape his pursuer, hopped a train, got rolled by a hobo and tossed out of the train.  Thinking of himself first as a man of action ruggedly surviving out in the wild, the woods quickly got the better of him.  Of course, hobbling around a on broken foot didn’t help him any.  That started a long sequence where he wound up living in a cabin the woods with a retired military physician.  The book took an almost existential turn at this point as Gerfaut basically started to live a completely different life for several months, as a sort of “why not?” expression of the meaninglessness of his former day-to-day life.  After the death of the old man, he took up with his granddaughter before the original plotline crashed back in as the remaining assassin killed his lover and then tried to kill him.  Gerfaut, now a crack shot with a rifle and at home in the woods, circled around and blew his head off.

The book then sharply circled back to the original, hard-boiled city crime drama as Gerfaut starts hunting for the man who tried to have him killed.  Teaming up with a man who wanted the arms dealer dead as well, they quickly and rather straightforwardly tracked him down, killed his dog and then gunned him down.  It’s clear that Gerfaut felt slightly queasy about the whole thing, but that didn’t stop him from following through.  Gerfaut was a meek man in his “real” life, and didn’t quite know how to act as a man of adventure in an adventure he was doing his best to avoid.  It’s almost as though that once he was thrust into this situation, he was following a pre-coded set of rules that had to be seen through to the very end.  When that played out, he simply walked back into his old life, feigning amnesia.

It’s clear that at the end of the story, he’s wondering if and when this sort of thing will ever happen to him again, as he both dreads and looks forward to such an event.  The sheer ordinariness of Gerfaut made him perfect as a cypher, a man who went about his day and didn’t think about why until that day was ripped to shreds.  There’s little that’s romantic or seductive about this comic; even the assassins had a very dull set of routines that the followed.  It’s the first quotidian crime story that I’ve ever read, and Tardi’s commitment to the depiction of the everyday and the way nightmares crashed into daily life are what made this book work so well.

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