Just when I thought I couldn't take another dysfunctional childhood memoir, when I least wanted to sit down to yet another litany of nutty parents, adolescent woe, and awkward sexual awakening, along comes Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, a splendid autobiography in the refreshingly tart (and svelte!) form of a comic book.
Bechdel's subject is her fraught relationship with her closeted gay father, Bruce, who was born, raised three children, and died at 44 possibly a suicide in rural Beech Creek, Pa. In this ''small-minded small town,'' he taught high school English, ran the funeral home, and, aside from some epochally misguided escapades with local teenagers, channeled his erotic energies into the florid renovation of the family's Gothic Revival house.
Bechdel coaxes out all the Queer Eye hilarity of her father's manic homemaking in taut, beautifully drawn pieces—muscles bulging and stripped down to cutoffs, Dad manfully pries up flagstones; lips pursed, he applies ''the thinnest, quivering layers of gold leaf'' to a picture frame without ever losing sight of the underlying pathos. Her father's antics were droll, but he was also an inadequate and heartbreaking parent, a frequently miserable man, and a profoundly lost soul, facts she conveys in the very same images. ''He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not,'' Bechdel writes. ''My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret.'' Bechdel doesn't have to tell us much about her parents' marriage: It's all in the sketches of her weary, heavy-lidded mother.
No flowery wallpaper or fussy gold leaf for Bechdel and no dark secrets, either. From childhood, she became, almost willfully, her father's inverse. ''I sensed a chink in my family's armor, an undefended gap in the circle of our wagons which cried out, it seemed to me, for some plain, two-fisted sinew,'' she writes. She became Modern to her father's Victorian, ''butch to his nelly, utilitarian to his aesthete.'' And in college, Bechdel did what her father never could: She announced she was gay. Four months later, Bruce Bechdel was hit by a truck while renovating yet another dilapidated house. Bechdel suspects he killed himself (her mother had recently asked for a divorce), though she is open to entertaining other explanations of his death, and of his problematic life.
More than the witty art, more than the mordant prose, it is this openness that distinguishes Bechdel's generous and intelligent work. Unlike so many memoirs, this one never tries to set the record straight, and while Fun Home takes only a couple of hours to read, it has a depth and sweetness few can match at five times the length.