My grandfather used to cut slices of baloney into little bits, fry them in a small skillet and make gravy from the drippings. He’d pour the gravy, pearl-white with flecks of pink, over canned biscuits and eat alone while everyone in the house slept. I was initially put off by its look and that strange combination of ingredients, but I came to love it. If I was lucky there would be leftovers to heat up in the microwave, otherwise I’d simply have cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons.
My grandfather has been dead for ten years, and it’s been twice as long since I’ve had baloney gravy, but any mention of that strange and hideous “meat” inevitably leads my mind back to images of cold biscuits sitting on the stove and my grandfather hunched over his plate.
Like those memories, Pascal Blanchet’s Baloney takes place long ago. Blanchet’s pages are like faulty memories, where people and places are approximations, lacking concrete details. His images don’t look drawn but rather lifted from the very fibers of the paper, every line and shape appearing like a natural formation on the page.
The visuals are striking, but perhaps more so due to the lack of characterization. Baloney is the story of a butcher in a tiny, isolated village located on a mountaintop. This butcher, nicknamed Baloney “after the saddest of all meats”, leads a life of misfortune: he’s a widower living with his one-armed, blind daughter who suffers from polio. Money is scarce, but Baloney wants to make a better life for his daughter, whose one dream is to travel to the city and get an education. Fearing her handicaps will slow her down, Baloney sends for a tutor. Five years later the tutor arrives and, naturally, falls in love with the girl. The tutor’s scientific curiosity proves to be the undoing of them all when he uncovers a plot by the town’s powerful and vengeful Duke.
Blanchet’s story has all the components of a fairy tale, but the pieces fit together awkwardly, each dropping into place one at a time rather than moving together fluidly. The Duke is introduced at the beginning of the second act as if the story is starting again, and his arrival serves only as a reminder that every story needs a villain. He has no interaction with the characters and no apparent motivations for his villainy. He is rich and powerful, so naturally he is bad. These are well-worn traits in countless stories, but it’s not enough to simply plop them down in the middle of a story and expect them to work. Stories, even simple ones, are woven, not cobbled together.
Blanchet uses a framing device of three acts to give the work the feel of a stage play or opera, but this only serves to emphasize the clunky nature of the story rather than the narrative symmetry it implies. Blanchet also lists instruments for the beginning of each act and the mood they’re supposed to evoke, but their inclusion is merely an inventory of ideas rather than an enrichment of the narrative. Instead, Blanchet’s artwork evokes these moods, an impressive feat given his use of only a mixture of red, white, and black.
Again, it’s the visuals that make this book worthwhile. There is motion on these pages as much as emotion. The lack of borders or panels on the pages give the eye a never-ending sense of the story’s actual fluidity. The words just get in the way. Blanchet’s world is one of the marbled pinks and reds of high quality beef, the pale pinks of processed meats like hot dogs and, of course, baloney, but his words are like stale bread.
The most striking image in a book filled with them is one of the tutor, the daughter, and Baloney silhouetted against a pink sky, their shadows cast in light through a gaping hole in a brick wall. There is beauty and darkness there, and the two mix together until their differences are imperceptible. It is haunting and joyous and magical.
By the book’s end, Blanchet’s story is far removed from the melancholic whimsy of the beginning. Despite the stumbles getting there, it’s a satisfying, if disheartening, ending. Baloney leaves the reader feeling confused. Visually it is truly amazing, but reading it is a disappointment. It’s the opposite of that baloney gravy my grandfather used to make: it looks great, but it isn’t so good going down.