“Obviously a labour of love” – The Abominable Mr Seabrook by Joe Ollmann
It’s possible you’ve never heard of William Seabrook, despite the fact that in the 1930s and 1940s he was a bestselling travel writer, known to James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and countless others. In some ways, the tale told here is not unfamiliar: writer achieves a measure of fame, develops a drinking problem, flirts with being a hack, struggles with mental health, does himself in. But at the same time there are things that make this tale, and Seabrook himself, quite unique.
For example, he was responsible for coining the word “zombie”. He also claimed to have eaten human flesh on his travels (although it turns out he didn’t eat human flesh on his travels but rather much later, in order to have actually done the thing that he said he had done). What sets the book apart and raises it above the herd is: for Ollmann, this is obviously a labour of love. It’s taken him 10 years and he undoubtedly has tremendous fondness for the flawed, somewhat incorrigible Seabrook.
That fondness imbues the book with a terrific sympathy. Yes, Seabrook wasn’t altogether faithful to his wives, yes he had a thing about S&M, yes he struggled with drink (and occasionally drugs), yes his writing was seriously up and down – but he was a man who tried and failed, who couldn’t go on and went on, who sought an answer even if he didn’t find it. We travel in Seabrook’s company, we attend the parties that Seabrook attended, we see the ways in which he struggles with authenticity and drink. And Ollmann could suck up, could make more of Seabrook’s talent than there is – but time and again, he seems fair. A lot of Seabrook’s books are out of print (although this is changing, apparently) and so it would be easy for Ollmann to over praise an unknown quantity – but he doesn’t do that. We know when Seabrook is phoning it in (or dictating it to one of his wives, at any rate) and we know when Seabrook is writing work that (at least as far as Ollmann is concerned) has stood the test of time.
The Abominable Mr Seabrook, then, has a good story to tell and Ollman tells it well. Ollman writes (and draws) sympathetically, the book is funny and sad in equal measure – and funny and sad aside, it’s interesting. Yes you think as you read, I can see why someone would want to tell this story. Not only that, I can see why people would want to read it too: Ollman is a talent, and the book is substantial and thoughtful enough to warrant a place on any self-respecting graphic novel aficionado’s shelf.
Any Cop?: We heartily recommend and look forward to whatever Ollmann tries his hand at next (let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years!).
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- January 30, 2017 / 9:00 am