George Booth’s Little Theater of Everyday Absurdities

Posted by on January 12th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

And interiors: including that of a passenger conveyance (chartered bus? Airplane?) A well-dressed gentleman confides to his seating companion: “I leave messages in the pussycats’ voice mail boxes. Sometimes they get back to me. Sometimes they don’t.”

He is well-dressed, late 40s, perhaps. She: 70s, early 80s? Sensible, check-patterned coat. Only evident decoration: a pair of feathers in her small sensible hat, implanted in V shape: like twin-canted backbones. Her spectacled eyes, targets: mouth, a forbidding arc.

Epigraph #2: A spacious upper-middle class living room: numerous guests. On the sofa, the hostess is addressing a journalist: “Once it catches on, the small-horse household-pet craze will go like blazes. And you may quote Mr. Rodney on that!”

Indeed. A photographer might have cinched the argument: Mr. Rodney’s campaign has begun at home, and then some. Before our hostess, on the throw rug, two ponies are lounging, nonchalantly as might two Irish setters, or mastiffs. Directly behind the sofa that holds the reporter and a pipe-smoking partner, two equine eyes are peeping; another pony’s head may be seen from behind the sofa’s left arm. At far right, by the door, a black horse rests its head on a palomino’s shoulder; while, through the doorway, up the hall stairs, another witness to Mrs. Rodney’s prophecy peeps from behind the doorway’s edge.

As the above descriptions may, I hope, suggest, George Booth’s cartoons, in large ­part, are theaters, staged vignettes, that, in their tones, mingle the cranky, bristling domesticity of the ’20s and ’30s Clifford Odets with the careening Surrealist/ Dadaist farce of Eugene Ionesco. Booth’s overall tone differs from many of his current colleagues at The New Yorker in its deft balancing of journalism and whimsy.

A recurrent pursuit of Booth’s citizenry is the accretion of disposable articles: furniture, old tires, toys from their grandsires’ childhood; electronic devices from eras past. “There’s more inside!” assures the hostess at a lawn display that easily goes back three decades. The deluge may consist of animate presences: i.e., cats.

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One or two of Booth’s ménages occasionally seem to take precedence. There are the rehearsal sessions of a local amateur orchestra, featuring the ever-unpredictable riffs of Mrs. Ritterhouse — a boney belle-dame who, Booth attests in an interview with Lee Lorenz, was based on his, Booth’s, mother. Booth’s depictions of these gatherings display the melding in his style of traditional formal simplifications (Mrs. R’s projecting ­jaw resembles that of Popeye) and his aptitude for groupings, clusters, both human and inanimate.

Eccentricity crackles like a perilous yet fascinating live wire. Booth, however, maintains a perception of mild looniness — persuasively maintained —a as a factor of lifestyle. “Everybody’s nuts!” confides a butler, standing in a palatial foyer — to a dray horse, still wearing its blinkers. But more subtly eccentric is a tiny ménage — he and she ­in a virtually naked flat, with a dangling electric light bulb (currently, it would seem, recognized by Booth fans as a signature prop): usually, a single table and chair. He is generally glimpsed through two door-less doorways, in a washtub; from which he voices sage reflections and bon mots. “How would you rate me, hon, on a scale of one to ten?” he muses. The dwelling-room floor swarms with cats. Booth evokes a flickering, volatile mixture fatalism: sparked antipathy; and gestures of elegance which somehow are never merely pathetic — due probably to the duo’s stolid fatalism. “This is a night for white wine,” she declares, as she lights two candles. He is wearing a striped sweatshirt and cap, apache-style.

I have barely suggested, in the preceding words, the breadth and variety of tone, the candor and agile precision of Booth’s comic realism. Samples of his Neanderthal comic strip may be found in the Lorenz collection. So may innumerable examples — especially in the several pantomime comic strips — of the impish gaiety; nor the virtuosity with captions (several of which, here, are compact monologues; whose gritty melancholia, John O’Hara might envy).

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