- A Graphic Bildungsroman
First Second Books
240 Pages; Cloth, $24.99
Though he didn’t become a celebrity or win a Nobel Prize, Howard Cruse, who died in December 2019, reminded me of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw made lively significant drama from public issues and those in whom public issues and ideas take up symbiotic residence. Ideas, ideological debates, talking points, slogans, counterarguments all engaged Cruse, though to avoid boring readers, he spun catchphrases and cant with irony or underlined them with anger. In Stuck Rubber Baby, his graphic novel reissued in July of 2020 with much additional material, every character can deploy an ideology or philosophy of life in the blink of an eye — every character except Toland Polk, the protagonist. And even he is a born-again atheist — no small thing in the South of the early ‘60s, where Stuck Rubber Baby takes place.
Stuck Rubber Baby is a bildungsroman with Toland as a modern Huck Finn, setting off to discover who he is through accidental encounters, logic trees where every fork offers a choice — stand pat or raise the ante. And for Southerners of his generation — Cruse was born in 1944 — the Civil Rights Movement in its myriad manifestations reaching every Southern life, was a major test of identity. People, black and white, defined themselves by their resistance, participation, accommodation, or cognitive dissonance.
But before Toland, his path cleared by the death of his parents, encounters the Movement, Cruse paints the milieu, the everyday texture of pre-Movement southern life. As a little boy, Toland plays with the African-American “yardman’s” son. They exchange clothes in a game, tripping a racial taboo warning flare, and Toland can’t play with him anymore. Toland’s father explains to him that African Americans just don’t have the same mental capacity as whites. But Cruse skillfully puts this father-son talk in a context where the “yardman” has just solved a problem the whites couldn’t figure out.
What’s really on Toland’s mind though, is his two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards quest for sexual identity. The end of the quest is never in doubt because an older Toland, settled in San Francisco, is telling the story to his male partner — a narrative device often used by William Faulkner.
As the partner contributes comments, wisecracks, and hugs, he hears about Toland’s draft physical — once a rite de passage for US males on turning eighteen. Failing to deny his queerness — an impulse quickly retracted — Toland fails to pass, gets a job, and moves in with Mavis and Riley, a couple sniffing the wind for signs of the new freedom promised by JFK’s New Frontier. That Riley looks to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy for guidance is a nice, and accurate, period touch — typical of the careful, unobtrusive restoration of the historical setting, in small things and large, which creates the authenticity of this graphic novel.
Toland’s friends introduce him to Sammy Noone, a vivacious gay musician who didn’t get the memo about conforming to Southern social mores, and Noone takes Mavis and closeted Toland to a party at an African-American motel (based on the AG Gaston motel in Birmingham, headquarters for Martin Luther King during the Birmingham campaign of 1962). “It’ll be an integrated party, full of beatniks, anarchists, homosexuals, negroes, vegetarians, drunks and poets,” Noone tells Toland. The guest of honor is the gay son of the city’s leading civil rights minister. The interracial party, where Toland sees men slow dance together, entwines the racial and sexual themes and introduces many of the characters — a network where a gay underground meets civil rights activists. For Toland, and the novel, the most important character is a period type — aspiring folk-singer, rebel, passionate for honesty, authenticity, and racial justice — whom Cruse brings to life and places at the center of the story, Ginger Raines.
Ginger and Toland gradually enter a relationship — Ginger fiery and idealistic, Toland wary and ambivalent. If it seems odd that a story about a man coming out, told by...