Aneurin Wright's debut graphic novel, "Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park ... When You're 29 and Unemployed," is a shape-shifting chimera stuffed between book covers; a comic that explains the nuances of emphysema and elder care, a meta-meditation on death, loss and coping mechanisms, a tale of father-and-son reconciliation in which the father is a curmudgeonly rhino and the son a headstrong — and totally ripped — spectacle-wearing Minotaur. It's all at once heart-breakingly sad, visually arresting and, for anyone who has helped a parent navigate the end-of-life process, strangely comforting.
The storyline is so straightforward and familiar it would be unremarkable as a traditional novel: A struggling young artist has a rocky relationship with his difficult father. After the elder man's losing battle with emphysema has pushed him to the "certified for hospice" stage — essentially six months left to live — the reluctant son crosses the country to move in with, and serve as caregiver to, his dying father. The title comes from the book's chapter headings, each one a tongue-in-cheek "activity" that fills the duo's day-to-day existence, including "Counting Pills," "Bathtime" and "Reconciliation" (parts one, two and three).
The quirky title and menagerie of illustrations sound like the setup for a book full of funny, and it does have its share of humor — including awkward, unintentional father-son porn-watching moments and the author's fantasized dispatching of a nosy neighbor — but it hews more to the serious side.
As the reader soon finds out, the younger Wright is filling his time with something more than administering enemas and mending fences with superhero-like fortitude. He's also documenting the very definite, if slowly approaching, end of his father's life and all the emotional tumult that comes with it — fear, anger, sadness and a desire for vengeance. In the tradition of Art Spiegelman's "Maus," the contrast between the heavy subject matter and the comic form of illustrated panels and word balloons plays out like beautiful, sad music. It lingers long after the final notes have sounded.
A lot but not all of that has to do with the artwork. Wright depicts himself as a beefy, blue anthropomorphic bull. His father, Neil, is drawn as a pot-bellied rhinoceros constantly struggling to breathe. Big Tobacco is represented by monocle-wearing capitalist pigs in three-piece suits. A visiting social worker appears at various times as a kindly bear, a wise owl or a slow-moving sea turtle. Distractions and annoyances are chattering monkeys pulling at the shirt sleeve — until they're conquered, at which point they become cuddly lap cats. Presented without explanation, such metamorphoses force the reader to make the connections and connect the dots. The effect is like jabbing one end of a USB cord into Wright's brainstem and one end into your own; you don't feel like you're reading about his experiences as much as you're quasi-remembering them yourself. When, toward the end of the book, the Minotaur rises up and stuffs a many-tentacled fear-demon into an inkwell, it feels like he's doing it on behalf of all of us.
Wright isn't just a one-trick Minotaur, though; the accompanying text makes "Things to Do in a Retirement Trailer Home Park" double back on itself like a self-aware ouroboros. One of the aforementioned porcine posse upbraids the protagonist — who at the moment happens to be dressed as a vigilante named Authorial Persona — "Well, first off subtlety is always an asset. I mean ... PIGS! C'mon! I've seen more subtlety in Frank Capra movies." At another point, the father complains to the son about the way he's being drawn, saying, "you made that rhino look pretty scary."
Penn State University Press' Graphic Medicine series is designed to make medical issues accessible through graphic novels, and the book tackles the emotional and medical components of disease and dying. The pain caused by emphysema, for example, is explained across three panels almost like poetry: "Emphysematic lungs essentially solidify with scar tissue. ... Thus expanding them to breathe can feel like ... you're tearing them apart." The lungs' alveoli are described as "the Customs Agents of a tiny, invisible land ... the Border Guards inspecting goods moving from the Great Unbounded Nether Wilderness of Outside ... Inside." Hospice care is explained along the way, as are the side effects of morphine.
"Things to Do in a Retirement Trailer Home Park" is the odd critter of a book that, under usual circumstances, might be hard to recommend. But having recently tread much of the same mental and medical ground — my father died in December 2014 after a battle with melanoma — Wright's book came across as reassuring, comforting and cathartic. By committing his chattering doubt monkeys, emphysematic rhinos and narcissistic Minotaurs to the page he has in effect rendered yours and mine powerless. And by sketching out the lonely deserts and choppy crossings of his own journey, he's made our own treks just a little less daunting.
Dealing with the decline and death of a loved one will never be easy. But with "Things to Do in a Retirement Trailer Home Park," Wright illustrates how to grab the bull by the horns.
Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park... When You're 29 and Unemployed
Pennsylvania State University Press: 320 pp., $32.95