Ben Katchor: The Jew of New York

Ben Katchor
The Jew of New York
Pantheon

The setting: New York, 1830. An acting company is staging a play called The Jew of New York, written by an anti-Semite about the journalist/playwright (and historical personage) Major Mordecai Noah. Another Jew, thrown out of his community for breaking the laws governing ritual slaughter, has amassed a fortune in beaver pelts. Meanwhile, a competing theater company has seized on a strange notion prevalent at the time--that Native Americans were of Jewish descent--to mount a play that features an Indian who speaks Hebrew.

Though set some 160 years ago, Ben Katchor's Buffalo bears more than a passing resemblance to the subterranean, nocturnal dreamland the comic artist has created in his weekly strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer and the lesser-known Cardboard Valise over the last decade. Those strips focus on life in a contemporary (yet strangely timeless) and unnamed city that is obviously New York, and they're filled with an unyielding sense for the absurd underpinnings of everyday life and a keen eye for detail. As with Katchor's other work, The Jew of New York features a cast of distracted, middle-aged, and almost exclusively male characters, crudely drawn in black and white, and it leaps from one character to another with little notice. Their endeavors are mysterious and their habits curious: They eat a lot of turtle soup; some attend rallies sponsored by the Anti-Masturbation League. One man, a student of the kabbalah, spends his days recording words to describe bodily functions. FYI: "Greptz" is his onomatopoeic rendering of a loud burp.

What comes across more loudly than this greptz is Katchor's compassion for those on the fringe--in his mind, seemingly, almost everybody. And if everyone's an outsider, then perhaps Katchor is suggesting something bigger and, perhaps, a bit more profound: Is anybody on the inside?

 
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