The story begins with a very old man, alone on a farm, by turns haunted and comforted by memories of long ago.
Lou Lebeuf’s ghosts are scraps of earlier days that he roots around in looking for an explanation of his loneliness and isolation. He arrives at an answer, of sorts, by telling a tale of running away, trying to find his way back home, and losing track of which way is which.
Essex County Vol. 2: Ghost Stories
(Top Shelf Productions)
The tale takes him back to a time, in the early 1950s, when his younger brother Vince arrived in Toronto to play semi-professional hockey with him. Lou’s love of the sport is obvious. Though while hockey is an end in itself for him, it is a far smaller part of his brother’s hopes and dreams.
But his brother, his younger self insists, is the one who, with a good season in the minor leagues and a bit of luck, stood a chance of making it all the way to the NHL. Vince is a huge, powerful man—though a gentle giant most of the time—with a fierce sense of loyalty to Lou. Lou plays that to his advantage in an early game, picking a fight with an opponent and losing that fight right in front of his brother, in order to awaken the bull within.
The strategy works. Vince becomes, for a time, in Toronto, the hottest thing on ice. It just means far more to Lou than it does to Vince.
As a protagonist, Lou is far less likeable than the little boy through whom Jeff Lemire told Tales from the Farm, the first volume of his “Essex County” trilogy.
Lou wallows far too long in his personal history of wronging those closest to him, in particular his brother. He seems to be looking for the pivotal moment, that scene near the close of Act Two in the movie of his life in which his great sin, the one that determined the path of his life, will be revealed.
He finds a good one: a rooftop betrayal consummated with his brother’s fiancée.
Even so, in searching for that one explanatory act, a man can fail to recognize that he had been hard at work constructing the walls of his own solitude for many years leading up to it. The act a guilty conscience names to explain itself is all too often only the smear of mortar used to set the final brick in place.
Lou asks himself, near the start of the book, whether it was “always like this.” A fair reading of his story suggests that, yeah, in a certain sense, it always was.
Along the way, the story is rich in sports action, not so common a theme in graphic novels, and does a nice job of illustrating the near-familial bonds and rough camaraderie between teammates on the ice and off. When stripped of everything, Lou’s wanderings draw him toward the ice, the rink, the spiritual home of the hockey player.
Ghost Stories is not a happy tale, though there are moments of happiness, or, at least, moments of distraction in it. It is as much a study in the mechanics of loneliness as Tales from the Farm, though while that book ended with a young boy coming to a realization about himself in time to face his future, Ghost Stories concludes with a bittersweet moment of clarity arriving near the very end of a life.
It is satisfying taken on its own or as the middle section of a trilogy.
It will be interesting to see how Lemire’s three act play about his Southwestern Ontario stomping grounds resolves itself with The Country Nurse, scheduled for release early in 2008.