July 23rd, 2008 > Comics

Review: Crooked Little Vein (Paperback)

The challenge of the American road trip novel is in how to approach the various cross-sections of pure, domestic lifestyles and pull the veil to reveal something strange yet familiar about the places around us. Even harder is meeting that challenge and finding an honesty so outrageous and funny you wonder whether you should fear stepping off your lawn. Warren Ellis takes the convention of a traditional travel story and finds that you can indeed take the seedy underbelly of middle America and blow it to epic, cartoonish levels in Crooked Little Vein.

Ellis’ debut novel, just released in paperback, is a simple idea of a little story framed around a central mystery. The journey of main man Mike McGill, a detective with a knack for putting up with the bizarre and absurd, is commissioned by a heroin-addicted Chief of Staff to track a long-lost mythical document designed to return the nation to a moral standard: an alternate Constitution of the United States. Armed with government funding and a tempermental sidekick he finds on the street, Mike begins a descent into the surreal perversions and new sexualities that redefine what it means to live in a free America.

Ellis brings his graphic novel style to prose and makes for a tightly constructed book; it is a short read, but the language is clear, the dialogue smart and fast without ever missing the mark. Any long-time fans of his comic book work like Transmetropolitan or Fell know how well he can dig and explore the strangest ideas we don’t even know exist. Trailing the characters across the land is like finding an exhibit on Internet subculture and all the dirty public secrets, from Godzilla porn to saline injections to more concepts too wild and disturbing they have to be true. What can be viewed as shock value is simply an amused commentary of the new mainstream as bred through private decadence living out in the open amongst the websites we’ve never seen. The best part is that you don’t just accept how real these twisted strangers are, you realize just haven’t met them yet.

What is more important is that Ellis makes you care about these people and that is where the promise of his writing starts to show. The drama is so irreverent yet touching, particularly when the story takes a turn for Las Vegas and straight to the last page, that you can’t help but find the prospect of the lead’s sanity cracking to be so romantic. What Ellis does is get you to feel so fed up and angry with the way we’ve let the world turn out that somehow we can find the beauty in all the weirdness of our perverted neighbors. A statement on where we’ve come to as a population, these peppered insights enhance our relation with these lead characters that you almost want to endure the magnifying glass on the world a few more times just to see how else they will snap. What we get are threads left short for readers to muse on before moving to the next flash of ideas to play with, and so what could have been a deeper sort of story is lost to making sure we do not desensitize ourselves too much, or else we can’t be surprised in future works.

New to the paperback edition are supplementary materials to the initial release of the book and other hilarious samples of Ellis’s style. Compiled from online interviews and notes by the author himself, you are given a strong sample of his wider sense of humor and talent as a lecturer. Very rare that a cooking lesson can make a second read be welcomed, along with a soundtrack listing that inspired the project. A sharp, sweet little story designed for the underground, this premiere hints at a fresh voice with fresh things to say, whether we need to know them or not, and out of morbid curiosity we will want it a lot.

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Posted by Phillip Esquivel

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