Buy on Amazon.com
No matter how close or how distant you are with you family (both emotionally and physically) nor how big or small it is, family reunions are always going to be a bit of a strange thing. People who only know each other in certain ways get have to interact with each other. It doesn’t matter if these people are related to you (or in some cases, people you’ve close enough to they might as well be relatives) — sometimes they can still be strangers.
Matt Howarth‘s The Downsized (AdHouse Books, 2011) takes place during one such family reunion. Howarth presents a family that loves each other despite everything. Not just that, they (mostly) like each other, and that’s refreshing. There’s conflict, certainly, and it’s not all fun, but the connection these people have with each other is strong.
The “kids” (in this case, basically just the second generation of the family) are happy to go sneak off together to smoke pot away from the ever-watchful eyes of their older family members. They may not always get along, but the family is happily devoid of drama overall.
I don’t mean to make it sound boring. Howarth gives these characters all kinds of quirks — Roli’s job writing for porn magazines to Kay being the mayor of a small town in Alaska to Pauli naming her cat Leia — and he may go a little overboard with some of that. But once you realize this isn’t necessarily meant to be a true slice-of-life portrait, those things do keep the book fun.
I did have some trouble of keeping track of how some of these characters were related to each other, but in the end, I don’t think it mattered so much who was a sibling and who was a cousin. What mattered is what they meant to each other.
And these things actually make his observations on being adrift in life, regardless of what age you are, that much more poignant. While the book is set in Michigan, which was obviously hit hard by the economic downturn (and before, for that matter), much of this does feel universal. We’re all ready for change and are fighting inertia.
Howarth’s art is stylized and cartoony — Roli’s T-shirt in the first chapter has ever-changing messages, various over-the-top character designs, especially with Uncle Marty, who got lung cancer from asbestos and not because he was a life-long smoker. Howarth isn’t striving for realism here, and the playful quality of his lines actually makes the work all that more poignant. It’s easy to just be enjoying the wit of both the art and dialogue while the meaning of what’s being said settles in.
Having said that, I do think the end, however powerful, doesn’t quite fit in with the tone of the rest of the book. It initially felt like Howarth didn’t quite know how to wrap things up, but the more I thought about it, the more I was OK with it. Howarth’s ultimate point seems to be that we need to appreciate what we have and who we love while we have them. He maybe could have gotten there a bit more gracefully, but I think it works out just the same.
I was actually surprised at how sad I felt to let the characters of The Downsized go. They’re not my family, no, but they still feel familiar.