Once again, Daniel Clowes makes it all look so easy. His new work, Mister Wonderful, takes place over roughly a 12-hour period, in which our narrator and protagonist, a middle-aged man named Marshall, goes on a blind date with a woman named Natalie. They are set to meet over coffee around 6 p.m., but when Natalie fails to show after some 40 minutes of waiting, Marshall has a drink. And then another.
When Natalie does finally show—she had inadvertently gone to the wrong place first—an inebriated Walter tries to pull it together so he can impress and dazzle the lovely woman he sees before him. Sadly, Walter doesn’t have much going for him. He’s doughy and unemployed, running quickly out of money, and he accidentally loses his temper in front of Natalie when a homeless man persistently asks him for money.
Natalie has her baggage, too. She’s gotten out of a very long-term relationship, but the scars most definitely remain. When she mentions to Marshall that she has a previous engagement she must attend later in the evening, he assumes she’s giving him the brush-off. And maybe she is. But a strange turn of events will place them back together shortly after first parting ways. From there, the events get stranger and the secrets both would-be lovers would like to keep hidden instead come to the surface.
There’s no lurking menace here. Marshall is not a serial killer waiting to pounce. Natalie is not a psychopath. Both are simply damaged, normal human beings working their way through the world and trying to find a partner to share the journey. They have been set up together by mutual friends Tim and Yuki. (“I hope he took his pills!” Tim exclaims to his wife about Marshall as they gossip about the matchmaking they’ve orchestrated. Yuki responds with her own declaration of her friend’s presumed behavior: “She’s either being really quiet and inscrutable, or she’s just jabbering away about totally inappropriate stuff.”)
That the two have met in such a time-honored way is a subtle clue about the story’s texture. Although Mister Wonderful is set in the present day (it was originally serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine), it could be taking place at any restaurant in any town, really, and almost at any time in the last 40 or so years. Cell phones and iPods and the like don’t muck up the story. And the two romantic leads seem timeless, not quite ready or eager to partake in the world of today (a sulking post-divorce Marshall in shown in flashback to be “in a bit of a dry spell” as he sits and watches The Night of the Hunter, for example).
There’s plenty of dramatic tension and even a brief scene (mostly off-panel) of violence, but giving away any more details of the story would spoil the fun and surprise of this simple yet elegant book. Suffice to say, it more than lives up to the title.
Reviewed by John Hogan on July 6, 2012