From the stack: Elk’s Run

April 8, 2007

Before I get too far into the collected Elk’s Run (Villard), I have to take a moment to address novelist Charlie Huston’s introduction, because it’s awful. It’s filled with the kind of testosterone-fueled posturing that the story itself wisely avoids and even subverts. Here’s a sample:

“Read the fucking book.
“Burn, baby, burn.
“And learn something about yourself.”

If I knew nothing about Elk’s Run and was browsing it in a bookstore or comic shop, that invocation would compel me to set it on the nearest flat surface and move on, baby, move on. And that would be too bad, because the book is a fine and balanced piece of suspenseful drama, no matter what the introductory chest-thumping might suggest.

Fortunately, I’d read some of the early chapters in pamphlet form and knew what to expect. But if you did scan Huston’s remarks and your fight-or-flight instincts kicked in (and no one could blame you), I hope I can convince you to reconsider.

Elk’s Ridge, West Virginia, has isolated itself from the rest of the United States. Founded by veterans of the Vietnam War and funded by the eccentric heir to a coal fortune, they view the government as corrupt and the culture as fractured. They want no part of it and enter into their own social contract, raising their families and living their lives in relative peace and security.

As the younger generation comes of age, the flaws in the arrangement become increasingly apparent. Choices the original settlers made don’t work for their children. Natural curiosity breeds boredom, and boredom creates tension and rebellion. The environment that seemed ideal to the adults proves stifling to the kids it was created to protect.

And it isn’t just the kids. A defection leads to tragedy, which only escalates as the town’s power figures take increasingly draconian measures to keep their bubble culture sealed. Intergenerational tension blows up into the equivalent of civil war, and it can’t help but end badly.

Joshua Hale Fialkov structures the escalating crisis with care and intelligence. The events he portrays are extreme yet chillingly plausible. Characters are given depth and detail. Artist Noel Tuazon has an impressive cartooning vocabulary. He adopts drastically different styles to ground the story in place and time, but it holds together. And I love the rich, saturated coloring by Scott A. Keating.

The dialogue is a bit thick in expletives for a sheltered mountain town, though it’s reasonably easy to conclude that the kids are just repeating what they’ve heard from their parents. And in a story where the greatest danger is becoming what you despise, whether it’s an oppressive, deceitful government or a hypocritical, violent adult, it’s a fair way of illustrating that point.