Jeffrey Brown calls his latest memoir LITTLE THINGS, but the truth is that the title is a little modest. It’s certainly true enough; the book is filled with mundane events, like getting a cat, meeting a boring friend of a friend, and conversations with parents and exes. But those small occurrences are where the magical events of life happen, which Brown is well aware of.
The book begins with a prologue that promises this collection of short stories is “about how things interconnect in life… How everyday stuff is… how we find meaning in our lives.” Some of the events described are more “eventful” than others --- the late-night trip to the emergency room, for example, which results in a gallbladder removal and tens of thousands of dollars worth of hospital charges. Whatever level of importance may eventually be assigned to them, the happenings reach a sum total that is nothing short of poignant and moving. Brown knows when to hold back and when to deliver on the promise of something he’s been building toward; it’s nice to relax and watch the story unfold knowing the storyteller has a complete vision in mind, a comprehensive tale that will make more sense in retrospect. Enjoy it while it’s taking place and then look back to connect the dots.
Brown is already somewhat well known for directing the music video for indie favorites Death Cab for Cutie’s “Your Heart Is an Empty Room.” He has also written several other graphic works, most of which have centered on his own life. Brown mines his past for rich material and uses it to make deceptively simple stories that pack a universal emotional wallop.
All of which is not to say that Brown isn’t funny. Make no mistake, he most certainly is. He makes wry observations throughout LITTLE THINGS with admirable subtlety. That restraint helps keep the book afloat, succeeding without sinking into self-indulgence. There is always a risk in such personal works --- the danger that the reader will feel as if he or she is looking at the equivalent of the storyteller’s vacation slides, secretly eyeing the door and wondering how long it will all last. And of course it has been suggested that, too often, the comic and graphic novel format is used for memoirs that don’t have the substance to sustain an entire work. With an elegant simplicity, Brown is able to dismiss all those worries almost immediately. These stories are too charming to be boring, too friendly to overstay their welcome.
That Brown has been able to make several memoirs work --- and work well --- in the format is a testament to his strengths as a graphic storyteller. His short stories here feel like hearing about the escapades of a funny friend. You’ll almost find yourself anxiously wondering aloud, “And then what happened?”
Reviewed by John Hogan on December 30, 2010