Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories

November 2013
By Ben Katchor, Pantheon, 2013, 160 pages, $30.

Out of Whack: A Cartoonist's Vision

Reviewed by Erin McHugh

Picture a bizzaro realm where building, construction, architecture, and just plain city living are slightly off-kilter—the stuff that dreams are made of. Welcome to graphic novelist Ben Katchor's world. If you're willing to immerse yourself in it, you may find yourself lying awake at night, worrying about your cellar and bearing walls.

Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories
Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories
The characters in Katchor’s new book inhabit a built environment that’s familiar but distorted by their own personality quirks and hang-ups.
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If you haven't crossed paths with Katchor before, Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories is the perfect start. The genius (MacArthur-certified) behind cartoon strips and novels like Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, The Jew of New York, The Cardboard Valise, Hotel & Farm, and Shoehorn Technique presents an oversize four-color treasury of over 150 Sunday-paper-length strips for anyone who has ever, well, lived or worked in a building.

Cause and effect are capricious and life-changing under the spell of Katchor's pen, and the results make even the smallest things oddly and thrillingly thought-provoking. It's all in the people the reader meets along the way: the man whose repeated unsuccessful attempts to dry his hands in a restaurant result in a poor impression on an important foreign visitor in the volume's eponymous story; a professional bathroom spy; the entrepreneur who produces a line of perfume and hygiene products for architectural enthusiasts using the scents and debris at demolition sites; the co-op buyer who is sent to a psychologist specializing in architectural incompatibility; the woman who refuses to meet her date in front of a building she abhors (suspiciously reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building). They all inhabit this crazy, all-too-nearly-real metropolis Katchor has built.

Readers get to visit imaginary architectural wonders like the Maharajah Tower, the Tooth & Nail Restaurant, 211 Testes Avenue, and Nadir's Sandwich Grotto. Witness the bitter disappointment every city dweller has suffered from “scaffold shock,” when after interminable months of passing under these dank, dark, temporary construction shields, we are horrified when the new, cheesy, unsightly building is at last unveiled.

Now sit back and ponder: Who is Ben Katchor? Is he an evil genius, part Everyman, part bogeyman, the Bad Boy of Buildings who is the human itch you can't reach, that popcorn you can't stop eating? Or a veritable architectural superhero, protecting and warning those of us intrigued and disappointed, fascinated and undone by the structures built around us? Perhaps the best description of this award-winning graphic novelist is mirrored in his rumination on “taxpayer” buildings, those tiny, rundown pizza joints, cigar stores, dry cleaners, and delis deployed in holding patterns until bigger, fancier, better-bottom-line projects come along. “They offer a pleasant respite from the high-density development around them—a break of light and air—an architectural biding of time,” writes Katchor. A few hours with Hand-Drying in America will give the reader a similar sense of an odd respite. Then perhaps consider this question: If MAD were an architecture magazine, would Ben Katchor be its editor in chief?

Erin McHugh is a New York- and Massachusetts-based writer and former publishing executive.

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