ON THE ROPES by James Vance


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An oft-praised graphic novel of the Depression era belatedly spawns a sequel.

Following the picaresque hobo’s fable of Kings in Disguise (1990), writer Vance and illustrator Burr follow their latter-day Huck Finn, as recast by Steinbeck, into young adulthood. Freddie Bloch is now Fred (except when he isn’t), and he has left the life of riding the rails and living in hobo jungles for employment in a WPA circus. In a setup that is heavily fraught with symbolism and adds resonance to the title, Fred now serves as an assistant to an escape artist who nightly feigns his own execution by hanging. Enmeshed within the plot are a female writer (now also employed by the WPA), some union-busting thugs and a lot of characters from various back stories that both enhance the narrative and confuse it. For the workers, it’s the same old story: “The same demand for dignity and survival. The same answer from those who hold the power. The same lesson learned.” Yet, Fred’s role in this struggle between the powers that be and those who would challenge that power remains murky, even to him, as double crosses lead to the possibility of triple crosses. Relationships reveal various twists as they leap back and forth chronologically, as Fred learns at 18 what he hadn’t known at 13, when he first hit the road: “I’d had no idea how large the world was, nor how fragile the lives it contained.” As he attempts to put what he has learned into writing, to tell the story within this story, he learns another lesson: “Most of us don’t want a better world, kiddo. We just want the old one back.”

The old world isn’t coming back, but at least one more volume of this series appears inevitable.

Pub Date: March 11th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-06220-5
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2012


by Seth