Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: Paying For It: a comic strip memoir about being a john (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011) by Chester Brown, 280 pages.

Award winning Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown has been known to choose unusual subjects for his art; just look at his 2004 comic strip biography of Louis Riel, the Canadian revolutionary, politician and founder of Manitoba who lived between 1844 and 1885.

“Paying For It”, a title chosen by the publisher and not the author, chronicles one man’s journey through the world of professional escorts. Along the way, Mr. Brown advocates the legalization of prostitution, questions the very idea of “love” and finds simplicity and beauty in the strictly utilitarian, no real strings attached relationships between a john and his various paramours. Yet in the end he settles on a particular “friend”, whom he helps with expenses and who in turn helps him with, well, you know.

But yet there is something more here. Our story begins when then live-in girlfriend Sook Yin Lee wishes to date another man. After a rather clinical intellectual couples discussion Chester gives his blessing and two roommates are born. To his credit Mr. Brown never exhibits jealousy and the two continue as friends to this day without ever falling backward on the mattress of romance even when Ms. Lee’s new romance hits the rocks.

In response to bouts of sexual tension, and after concluding he does not need the drama associated with a committed relationship, Chester investigates what it would be like to rent an occasional girlfriend: first looking to street walkers, then to escort print ads and finally internet escort sites.

The female names heading each chapter represent a different lady seen. The real names however, have been changed to protect everyone, except Chester, who spends many years trying to find exactly what he believes he is looking for and finds it in a monogamous arrangement with a woman who has him as her only client.
But there is yet more to this story than the controversy vis a vis the morals and ethics of sex for sale. And much more beyond the graphic portrayal of nudity and sexual encounters, which actually are not grotesque or even titillating, but done to advance the storyline.

While the author believes he has arrived at the modern relationship; there is nothing utopian or even utilitarian here. This is simply a love story and one man’s rather unconventional search for love and all the women along the way. Instead of typical one night stands and short term booty calls; you get one hour stands and a few short booty calls in between. This is dating on a different level but dating nonetheless.

Had this story been written as a conventional romance novel: lonely man tromps through several years of less than satisfactory dates until he finds true love, this book would have been endlessly boring, tedious and forgettable. Instead, Mr. Brown has raised the bar by infusing the story with his own twist. Just as a prostitute is always a professional; a love story is always a love story.

The art is drawn in a minimalist style. You will not see any faces on the women. Please don’t read anything into this other than to say what I have already alluded to --- the innocent are protected. This is not the girls’ story. This is Chester’s journey.

The book is touching, sometimes funny; usually quirky and at times a little preachy. It is also educational in that Canadian law and social mores toward prostitution are more liberal than here in the United States.

There is a wonderful introduction by the immortal Robert Crumb championing Chester Brown’s work, calling as well for legalized prostitution. But again, these fine cartoonists I think do doth protest too much. Love is love and Paying For It is a fine love story.

Buy Here.

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