There’s an inspirational life story within this graphic memoir of a frequently incarcerated junkie who belatedly earned an MFA from Columbia University’s prestigious creative writing program, but the framing and pacing of the narrative fall short of the material’s potential.
A lifelong addict and petty criminal, Parker had been arrested more than 30 times before he started college in his mid-40s. He had some artistic ability—shown more here in his portraits of rock stars than his rough-hewn comics—and a lifelong love of reading and writing, despite a dysfunctional family in which he followed his mother down the path toward drugs and crime and most of his siblings ended up in jail or on the streets. His matter-of-fact tone has an honesty and dark humor to it, but the storytelling is so offhanded and chronologically disjointed that readers will sense that Parker is both smarter and a better writer than what he shows here. Particularly compelling are the parallels he draws between the penal system, academe and addiction. There is no typically redemptive arc to the story, as the author keeps circling back to addiction and prison. Even after he went straight and found praise for his writing at Columbia, he admits that his financial problems (exacerbated by his criminal record) left him with little remorse about cheating the system. “I still have larceny in my blood and am not afraid to use it should the need arise,” he writes, telling a fellow student, “I came here to write, not to teach or work like a dog in some damn restaurant for minimum wage.”
Parker follows a professor’s advice to “write it the same way you would tell it”—but his approach to the narrative, hopscotching from here to there and back again, isn’t nearly as powerful as the story he has to tell.