With 100 frames of incongruously playful observation connected only by authorship, wit, and uncanny brilliance, The Portable February is a Cliff’s Notes thesis on existence, told in line drawings and one-liners by author, poet, and musician David Berman. Randomly exposing the vaudevillian arc of history, Berman extracts the extraordinary from the ordinary. He brings a furied ennui to every moment, grabbing the reader like an LSD-dosed and recently-ousted college professor who hijacked a tourist bus, calmly calling out the sights and overlooked absurdities of American life armed with a keen wit, a soft spot for pop culture, and the occasional ax to grind.
Just flipping through this book, one might say, “This guy can’t even fucking draw,” but the crudeness of his visual accompaniment is intentional.
In this visual follow-up to his critically-acclaimed book of poetry, Actual Air, David Berman tasks himself with contemplating the missing socks in the laundry load of life. Able to portray human futility in one frame, as in “The Soul and its Shtick,” the book’s visual simplicity belies the complexity of thought, as in “Humbled by the Void,” while a casual humor defines another, like “Daytime Television.” In frames like “Irrational 15th Century Battle Scenes,” and “'We' stands for 'warn everybody,'” his playful love for humanity emerges, and in the sweet “All culture strives, folks,” you can take his beneficent observations to heart.
Berman’s inner and outer battles seep into the pages and the juxtaposition of impossibly insightful and wicked smart ideas hung on spare, but potent, frames is pure Berman. Whether intentional or not, the book’s seemingly simple title, The Portable February, reflects the author’s dual perspectives, as February is a seemingly benign but scathing month. With the ebullience of the holidays deflating like a wheezing balloon into the bleakness of the purgatory of winter, the mercifully short month brings a pointless patina to each of its 28 days. Valentine’s Day, February’s lone holiday, provides a pink and red glimmer of hope and distraction, yet it’s a day often spent alone, sad, disappointed, possibly suicidal, or, if coupled, hated by everyone else. It’s no coincidence it’s also when the highest rate of suicide occurs in the U.S. What February lacks in joy, it at least mercifully makes up for in brevity. Fittingly, The Portable February gives us a playful guide to the futility of existence in a format you can carry.
The author has spoken publicly about his own near-miss with suicide and the turnaround that came as a result, and his work has always defied categorization, rarely adhering to a recognizable niche in any medium. Though critically acclaimed in every field he endeavors, his output has been sparse since 2009, when he dissolved his band, The Silver Jews, to focus on opposing his Washington lobbyist father, Rick Berman, who 60 Minutes dubbed, “Dr. Evil.” In his announcement, Berman described his father as a "despicable man...a sort of human molester. An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historic motherfucking son of a bitch,” and vowed, “In a way I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage. Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world. But there is the matter of Justice. And I’ll tell you it’s not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns. It hurts. There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.”
In the meantime, The Portable February is the doodle version of his band’s songs – seemingly familiar and benign structures contrasted with unusual and complex themes, working themselves out with all the intensity and unpredictability of a kite tangled in tree branches on a blustery day. Let’s hope there’s more from the gifted mind of this extraordinary writer, but we’ve always got this one to go.
The Portable February
by David Berman
2009, 97 pages, 5.5 x 8.8 x 0.5 inches (hardcover)
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