The new graphic novel from Pond (Over Easy, 2014, etc.) follows a young cartoonist struggling to free herself from the distractions of romance, drugs, and her colorful co-workers and customers at an Oakland diner in the late 1970s.
Madge’s life revolves around the Imperial Cafe, where she waits tables and gets entangled in the lives of a drug-using and -dealing, eccentric and flamboyant, sketchy and gruff ensemble. Camille, a fellow server, is beautiful and confident but also addicted to heroin—and a boyfriend with ties to a Colombian drug cartel. Sammy the cook loves cocaine and a girlfriend whose former flame thinks assault can win her back. Regular customer Lesbian has a thing for dishwasher Bernardo, who has a fling with server Daisy, which leads to in-store shenanigans Pond deems worthy of a “French bedroom farce.” Madge’s closest relationship is with manager Lazlo, who acts as father figure, counselor, and drinking buddy for the motley crew. The poetry he writes makes Madge feel an artistic kinship, the sense that she and Lazlo have grander ambitions than grinding their lives away working in a restaurant. But Lazlo has demons of his own. It’s a sprawling cast of characters, most of whom appear with little introduction, both because the book is a sequel to Pond’s Over Easy and because the story’s sense of place is as important as the individual players. Madge lives in this world of menial labor, class and racial tension, drugs and drink and crime, but at a remove, observing with an artist’s eye (“Leda? Oh, yeah. Weimaraner eyes. Doll left out in the yard”). Pond’s illustrations have the wavy lines; loose, watercolor-y fills; and expressive faces of Roz Chast’s work, and both cartoonists excel at confessional, humorous narration. Pond’s panels strike a perfect balance of text to image, keeping the pace brisk, especially with Pond’s keen ear for conversation.