Monday, April 5, 2010

Joe and Azat: I think "Jonah Zot" would be a good pen name

Joe and Azat
By Jesse Lonergan



This fictionalized account of cartoonist Jesse Lonergan's time with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan is kind of different from your usual travelogue or journalistic book; it's more personal, more character-focused.  That's an interesting choice, but it works well for Lonergan.  The focus on interpersonal relationships allows him to bypass the informational dumps that characterize so many of these sorts of books, outside of a few pages of explanation of how Turkmenistan's dictator spent tons of money doing things like shooting his self-penned holy book into space or building a river through the middle of the capital city while the rest of the country languished in poverty. Instead, it's all about the people Lonergan's stand-in, Joe, encounters during his time in-country, especially his title-sharing best friend, Azat.  Azat is a wonderfully-defined character, always optimistic and full of energy, planning to get rich and achieve international fame, certain he'll marry the girl he longs for even if their different social status makes it unlikely, urging Joe to marry a Turkmen woman and stay in the country, and continually coming up with schemes to make money that don't actually have much planning behind them.  It's easy to see why Joe takes to him, and why Lonergan leaves "himself" mostly undefined, in thrall to the stronger personality who is in his element, gregarious and full of life.

How much of this is true does come into question, but even if Lonergan completely fabricated everything, it rings true, due to all the cultural details, like the etiquette regarding romantic relationships, the reason Joe stopped carrying a camera to weddings, the unfamiliarity with the basics of capitalism that came from decades of Communism, and the boundless optimism that can come from living without much in the way of resources.  The art is somewhat simplistic and cartoony, but it communicates emotion well, especially highlighting Azat's endless enthusiasm, Joe's bemusement, and the drunken anger of Azat's brother Merdan.  Most of the storytelling is pretty rudimentary, but effective techniques pop up here and there, like the people in a pile of photographs all speaking to Joe and demanding copies of the pictures, and a sequence at a wedding in which panels occasionally highlight Merdan drinking and looking angry, as if Lonergan is regularly cutting away from the action to shots of a fuse burning closer and closer to a stick of dynamite, with the expected explosion all but imminent.

It's a short, quick read, but one that works well for what it sets out to do, which is tell a personal story that highlights a way of life with which most Americans are unfamiliar.  The good part is that it doesn't seem like something that could only happen on the other side of the world, but rather a good, human slice of life that anyone can relate to, and if we learn a little something about other countries and cultures along the way, that's all the better.