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Review: Joff Winterhart is a master at capturing the human soul in ‘Other People’

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Joff Winterhart’s Other People brings together two self-contained stories in the same volume, joined by common themes and similar characters, and also Winterhart’s mastery of intimate moments and the outward expression of personal and sometimes indefinable feelings. When it comes to full portrayals of realistically-rendered human beings, with all the subtleties and awkwardness contained in that, it seems we have a new master of the form in our midst.

The first part of the book, “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” is devoted to the low key and lovely little story of Daniel and his mom Sue during a summer vacation during high school. Daniel is a pretty typical kid well into his teen years, awkward and self-aware and practicing seizing distance from his mother, while still not realizing that she’s an important component to his daily existence.

Daniel likes metal and part of the story has to do with not only his interest in metal but his discovery of a band of kids much younger than him seeking a vocalist for their metal band. Not a lot of time is spent on this, but rather it pops up within the depiction of Daniel’s life in general as he tries to make the best of the boredom at home, negotiates slight issues with his only friend Ky, and interacts with Sue, who constantly embarrasses him with her affection. 

It’s not just entirely about Daniel, though. Sue is given equal time and we see the relationship from both sides, as well as learn about Sue’s background — her childhood and her former marriage to Daniel’s father. It’s through these segments that we learn a lot about what is behind Sue and Daniel’s relationship, where we discover their commonalities through Sue’s own childhood memories, and examine her behavior toward Daniel through information about her time with his father.

This is an incredibly sweet comic, but not because it maximizes the sweet syrup in its depiction — actually quite the opposite. It’s a truthful, affectionate rendering that captures parenting from a full view — that of the parent’s relationship with the child, but also the parent as a child. Most importantly there’s affection for both the lead characters and dignity given to each regardless of their shortcomings. It’s this lack of pettiness and accepting the characters on their own terms that really lends the genuine quality to the story, and brings forth an aspect of kindness within the storytelling that isn’t often enough displayed.

The book’s second story “Driving Short Distances” could easily be a sequel except that mother and son have different names. In this case, the son is named Sam, fresh from the self-destruction of his attempt at a creative work life and holed-up in his mother’s house in his hometown with no clue what to do next. 

Opportunity knocks in the form of Keith Nutt, who claims to be an old friend of the family, though Sam’s mother has no memory of him. Keith offers Sam a job without ever having met him, though it turns out that Keith’s business of “distribution and delivery” of “specialist services and sales supplying the Business Park and Logistics network” is a pretty mysterious vocation. Sam’s job mostly involves driving around with Keith and listening to his stories.

Part of the story involves Sam getting to know Keith — or rather, reading between the curated lines of the stories he chooses to tell about his life and his past. Slowly Sam is invited to certain aspects of Keith’s private life, though other parts remain mysterious and Keith is intentionally dismissive of attempts by Sam to pierce those aspects.

The story of Keith’s monologues to Sam is engaging, but the larger picture of what is happening is captivating. We’ve all gone through those moments where, as adults, we return to our hometowns, the ones we so desperately planned our escape from, only to discover these hidden nooks and crannies of interest and quirk, parts that could never previously be known to us because of the bubble universes that teenagers set up for themselves. But as an adult, Keith is almost literally dragging Sam outside of that old bubble and out into the streets where Sam begins to notice things about his home, begins to connect with some of the people involved and begins to learn things about himself.

Winterhart’s insightfulness, which is so on parade in the first story, bursts into your heart even more so in this second one. His talent for not only capturing people but also the interactions between them — particularly the awkward ones — is nothing short of remarkable. His depictions are maps of subtle progressions, and in “Driving Short Distances” in particular, the emotional map is mirrored by the physical one that begins to unfold in the car with Sam and Keith. 

I really fell in love with all of Winterhart’s characters and walked away feeling awe for his empathy toward them. Winterhart is incredibly capable of taking normal circumstances and honing in on what makes them special and interesting, alongside the same characteristics of the people involved. These are compassionate stories rendered by a storyteller that I cannot wait to see more work from, a storyteller who understands that people are walking narratives, and some of the best tales you can tell are from the moments when those narratives intertwine.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Sounds good. I just put the first volume, Days of the Bagnold Summer, and published in 2012, on reserve. Look forward to reading.

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