A hair shirt is more than just a strange meeting of two unrelated words, it’s a real thing, a fact Patrick McEown reminds us of at the beginning of his book of the same name. He describes it as being “used in some religious traditions to induce a degree of discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement.” It sounds uncomfortable, to be sure, but the term also sounds made up, like a jokey term describing the results of coming home from the barber without getting the neck properly brushed. However, wearing an actual shirt made of hair is a torture so specific and so minute that it can only teach a lesson, something about our own small part in God’s plan, or a physical manifestation of sin as it clings to us and claws at our purity.
Hair Shirt is the story of an art student named John who meets up with an old friend named Naomi. We meet John at a difficult time in his life. He’s still suffering from a painful breakup which dominates his world. He and Naomi begin a troubled romance fueled by jealousy, sexual hang-ups, and the ghost of Naomi’s dead brother, Chris, their tormentor from their teen years. Chris appears in John’s dreams with his drooling head attached to a dog’s body, a beast lurking in dank buildings and dark corners. The titular hair shirt also appears in these dreams as a garment John constructs himself.
After reconnecting with Naomi at a club, John explores their past together, including their teenaged attraction to one another, Chris’ death, and repeated but unspecified abuse from Naomi’s parents. For a while it seems like their relationship won’t progress because it isn’t a relationship at all. Rather, it’s two damaged people experiencing the comfort of convenience. John’s sexual hang ups threaten to get in the way, and Naomi seems determined to derail their romance by prodding John into hitting on her buxom friend Shazia. As John reflects more and more on their past, dark memories begin to surface and take their toll his present day relationship with Naomi.
John’s opening narration begins as he describes his hometown, saying it’s not a place that is whole, that it’s “More like an array of fleeting events linked by a longing for contact” and “...made up almost entirely of intervals between things. Absences…or possibilities.” He might as well be talking about the book. There’s a disconnect between the darkly fascinating world of John’s dreams and memories and the typical couples’ quarrels of John and Naomi. McEown excels at creating the rich imagery of nightmares and memory, but the waking relationships between the characters is tedious. John and Naomi both express their insecurities in tones which straddle the line between whiney and flat out obnoxious. There’s truth in their words and motivations, real world echoes of fights most readers have or will have at some point in their lives, but characters can be as just as obnoxious as real people.
Memory plays a major role in the story, specifically the ways in which people interpret, forget, or ignore it. Fights and grudges hinge on what’s remember from childhood and even fleeting encounters. John explores much of his past with Naomi, but the darkest parts of both their pasts remain mostly hidden. We do see, however, both John and Naomi suffers plenty of abuse at the hands of Naomi’s brother, Chris, and his behavior becomes a stand in for all the other abuses of the past. Naomi’s father remains unseen throughout the book but is far more menacing than Chris or the Chris-headed dog. The father is a dark shape looming at the top of the stars, a man whose very presence in the house brings a sense of danger and fear in all the characters. McEown renders these unspoken moments with superb skill.
The dream bound hair shirt is gross, a collection of material which should be discarded but sticks around to become a grotesque horror. There’s something scatological about it, a connotation which, under most circumstances, might invoke humor. Here it suggests another thing which must be hidden away, something shameful.
The great thing about comics is if the story’s no good at least there might be something good to look at. Hair Shirt is a wonderful piece of cartooning, filled with sketchy, misshapen lines which give visual weight to memory and its faults. The grotesque creatures of John’s dreams are horrifying, and the colors throughout the book alternate between warm and inviting to cold and menacing, each hue a setting suited perfectly to its scene. Visually, it’s top notch, but the story threatens to sink it. It isn’t a bad book by any means, and at times it’s very good, but too often it feels familiar, the usual story of a twenty-something trying to love someone and himself. It works best at its darkest, when John’s dreams seem real, and the memories are worse than anyone remembered.