The OF Blog: Adam Rapp, Ball Peen Hammer

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adam Rapp, Ball Peen Hammer


Ball Peen Hammer, Adam Rapp's first graphic novel, can be read as equal parts mystery and character piece.  Set in a post-apocalyptic urban environment (presumably New York, although I do not recall a particular city being named), Ball Peen Hammer follows two sets of two characters, the diseased musician Welton and the author Aaron Underjohn for one and the onetime-actress Exley and the half-feral child Horlick for the other story arc.  Although largely separate, the two arcs connect in ways that create one of the more powerful graphic novel stories that I've read in recent months.

Imagine a dark, doomed setting.  Acid rain falls from the sky and people have to go from domicile to domicile wearing gas masks and garbage bags to protect them from the corrosive downpours.  Disease is rampant, killing scores of people a day in a fashion as horrifying as the Black Death was nearly seven centuries ago.  There is a shadowy group, The Syndicate, that seems to maintain a warped control over the situation and the populace trapped inside the fetid rooms and rotting walls of the city.  It is a claustrophobic, dark, damp setting and Rapp and artist George O'Connor render this very well in this story.

Readers wanting full explanations of The Syndicate's motives or why there are "collectors" that scurry through the nights like demented rent collectors will be disappointed with Ball Peen Hammer.  But for those such as myself who can accept being placed in media res and having to fend for our own selves, Ball Peen Hammer is often a brilliant albeit morbid, twisted take on how humans bond in stressful situations.  The short, terse conversations that Welton and Aaron have while Welton soaks his sores reminded me of the short, staccato bursts that Cormac McCarthy utilized to great effect in The Road.  The world seems to be coming to some sort of end and what the hell do people have left but to reflect upon what was and what could have been?

The other arc, that of Exley and Horlick, was even more gripping in that the horrors occurring outside their shared, cramped room have found their reflection in Horlick's cruel, twisted outlook.  Children suffer the most in these situations and seeing Horlick from the first scene, where he coldly smashes Exley's valuable fresh melons, to his first confrontation with Exley is discomforting due to just how plausible his character is.  

The first half of this 134 page novel is spent developing the characters and their situations.  The final half is devoted to furthering the at-first tenuous connections between the two arcs.  Although Welton and Exley are but an apartment story or two apart, the two might as well be miles apart, due to the violent conditions outside.  Rapp and O'Connor do an excellent job reinforcing the claustrophobic setting and the viciousness of the mostly unseen "sackers" and "draggers," not to mention the sudden appearance of a character that Horlick described early on.  Each of these elements combine to create a closing that ultimately provides no closure at all; things end, but there are no satisfactory explanations, no appreciable acts of heroism, no treacly sweet reunions.  

Ball Peen Hammer thus concludes the way it began, in the middle of the action, with a paucity of explanation and an even greater lack of closure.  For some, this might be a very frustrating novel, despite the well-drawn characters and their (almost too) realistic reactions to such an unrelentingly grim environment.  Those who believe stories should have a "full" arc will inevitably be disappointed, since Ball Pen Hammer aims to tell a story that eschews such reader expectations. Instead, this graphic novel largely achieves its aim of thrusting the reader directly into the narrative, never allowing him/her the chance to "breathe."  From O'Connor dark, vivid images to Rapp's uncompromising dialogue, Ball Peen Hammer is an excellent story that will certainly stick in my mind for some time to come.  Felt like taking a shower and walking out into the sunlight after I finished reading that. Not many stories, regardless of medium employed for telling them, can achieve that effect.  Recommended.

Release Date:  September 29, 2009 (US).  Graphic novel.  Tradeback.

Publisher:  First Second

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