If you’ve been following Doonesbury, you know that apprentice CIA “asset” Jeff Redfern, son of Rick Redfern and Joanie Caucus, hasn’t been having a good month.
He shot down a helicopter in Afghanistan.
Wait for it. Took a second to sink in on his mother too.
Joanie: Jeff shot down a helicopter? All by himself? How terrifying for him to…to…The Taliban don’t have helicopters, do they?
Rick: The Taliban don’t have socks.
It was an accident. Could have happened to anyone, says Jeff. He was at a wedding in a village up in the mountains when the helicopter, carrying a USO troupe coming to entertain the troops in the area, appeared to the cheering of the crowd below. Jeff decided to celebrate in what he thought was traditional tribal fashion by firing his automatic rifle into the air and put a round through the helicopter’s gear box.
Again, his mother was reluctant to get her head around it.
Rick: I cannot believe this kid! How could we have raised such a total screw-up?
Joanie: Well, at least he didn’t kill anybody.
Rick: Joanie, could you possibly set the bar any lower.
If you think Rick is a little harsh there in calling his own son a total screw-up you aren’t a regular reader of the strip.
It’s hard to tell how old the main characters are since Garry Trudeau himself doesn’t seem to know anymore. He’s been letting them all age but not in real time like Gasoline Alley. Joanie ought to be pushing 80 by now, but she appears to be only in her early to mid-60s. I think she was meant to be in her 40s when Jeff was born, which would put him in his 20s now. He’s only a few years out of college. He dropped out but like his former roommate Zipper and the original Doonesbury gang he might have been on the 7 or 8 year plan so he could be in his late 20s. I take him to be about 22, 23.
Too old to be a kid. Young enough, though, to be excused for not being a full-fledged grown-up.
The history of domestic life is full of screw-up sons who continued to trouble and disappoint their parents well past the age when they should have developed some common sense, adult competence, and the ability to cross the street on their own without getting hit by a bus or causing accidents as cars brake and swerve to avoid them in their oblivious pursuit of some goal vital to their immediate satisfaction.
And there have been enough late bloomers among these hapless and foolish hobbledehoys that the type has been a staple of comedy since the Greeks.
In the usual plot arc these guys are saved from permanent irrelevance and adolescence by meeting the right girl. They snap to and grow up on the spot as soon as she says “Yes, I will marry you, Osgood!”
Which leads to another staple of comedy, the stodgy, grumpy, threatening (to young men), and successful older man who turns out to have been a total screw-up or juvenile delinquent in his own salad days.
P.G. Wodehouse’s stories and novels are as crowded as the gallery at the stock exchange with this type of old man, like Sir Watkyn Basset and Sir Reginald Glossop, to name just two, who were as feckless, wild, thoughtless, blockheaded, carefree, and as nice and decent-hearted when they were as young as Bertie Wooster and his friends from the Drones Club are in the books’ present.
Jeff has become Doonesbury’s resident Drone.
But with this difference.
I don’t get the impression that Trudeau is as fond of Jeff or as forgiving towards him as Wodehouse was fond of and forgiving towards Bertie and Bingo Little and Freddie Widgeon. Just the opposite.
Trudeau seems to me actively hostile to Jeff.
And I don’t think it’s the case that Trudeau is reacting to his own creation after the fact, as if mistaking Jeff for a real and autonomous human being. It feels as though he uses Jeff in order to work out his hostility towards a particular real and autonomous human being.
Could be I’m over-identifying.
I’m pretty sure that conversations like the one between Joanie and Rick took place nightly at the old Mannionville homestead when I was between the ages of 18 and 25 or so.
But Trudeau has done this before, grown apparently hostile towards a character and then brought that character back again and again for the sole purpose of being shown up as a jerk and a fool.
Mike Doonesbury’s ex-wife, J.J.
Trudeau didn’t treat Mark Slackmayer’s greedhead dad or even Richard Nixon with as little sympathy he does J.J.
Even before she ran off with Zeke, Duke’s useless and parasitical caretaker, J.J.’s role had become mainly to behave badly, mixing selfishness with self-delusion with self-righteousness in various combinations to make Mike’s life a regular adventure in humiliation.
At the beginning with J.J. it was the case that Trudeau was satirizing a type, the self-indulgent, self-involved minor artist who mistakes his or her adopting of the latest fads and trends for an independent artistic “vision.”
There came a point, though, when Trudeau’s attitude towards J.J. appeared to switch from satirical to judgmental, when J.J. seemed to do things she did because, well, she would.
J.J. was no longer a victim of a cultural foolishness she had bought into along with a lot of other types like herself. She was consciously and deliberately acting on impulses she had every reason to know would hurt both herself and Mike.
This is true to life in that there are people who realizing they have been accidentally hurtful and destructive double-down. They become even more hurtful and destructive in order to punish either themselves or the people that are mad at them for their past bad behavior who, they feel, should have either forgiven them or saved them.
I’ve believed for a very long time that Garry Trudeau has been doing something more than turning out a brilliant comic strip. He’s writing the satirical novel of our times, working more in the vein of Anthony Trollope in the Barsetshire and Palliser novels and The Way We Live Now and Anthony Powell in his Dance to the Music of Time than in the vein of…well…Garry Trudeau when he started out.
I’d have thrown Evelyn Waugh in there with Trollope and Powell except that Waugh is angrier and more judgmental and more of a prig towards his characters than either of them, even as Trollope and Powell seem more aware of the broader range of human frailty and folly. For Waugh, bad behavior is mainly defined as what other people do to offend people like him. For Trollope and Waugh, bad behavior is what we all do as a matter of course along with the good. And that is generally Trudeau’s opinion too.
J.J., then, was Trudeau’s most Waugh-like character.
And now I’m wondering if that contempt has been shifted towards Jeff.
Like a family curse.
Here’s the thing.
Jeff is J.J.’s half-brother.
Here’s another thing.
The two of them share a trait---a habit of letting grandiose dreams carry them away---with the character who is becoming the heroine of the strip.
Who is J.J.’s daughter.
Jeff is Alex’s uncle.
J.J. and Jeff are Joanie’s children. Alex is her grand-daughter.
I have no way of knowing if Trudeau has been thinking anything about the question of nature versus nurture. None of the three seem to have inherited much from Joanie, but maybe there are things about Joanie’s selfish jerk of a first husband, Clint, we don’t know enough about. Clint raised J.J., but Jeff was raised by two of Trudeau’s favorite characters, Joanie and Rick, while Alex was raised by two other favorites, Mike and Kim.
But here is an example of the way the comic strip has become novelistic. In novels characters routinely double and shadow each other. (By the way, this often happens without their authors’ being consciously aware of it. Writers make a lot of choices because they feel right.) As J.J.’s daughter and Jeff’s niece Alex can be expected to share some family traits. She naturally resembles them in some way, just as she’s inherited her father’s nose.
But resemblances aren’t recapitulations. On Alex, that nose is cute. And it is a symbol of her inherent decency. Alex is a beautiful young woman but not because she is a traditional beauty. She’s beautiful because she is who she is.
And it’s the same with the character traits she’s inherited from J.J. Both mother and daughter have artistic temperaments and a tendency to dream big too fast. In her head Alex was accepting the Academy Award for her documentary on Lacey Davenport before she’d shot her first interview (and she was filming it on her cell phone without seeing any problems with that) and she sees her boyfriend Toggle as a rich and powerful force in the music industry even though his one professional gig so far has been as a substitute assistant sound engineer for a series of celebrity GPS voice-overs.
But Alex has a practical side that Jeff lacks and J.J. only exhibits when her back’s to the wall. And she is far more self-aware and self-judgmental than either of them. She not only knows when she’s screwing up, she expects herself to screw up. Her dreams may be self-aggrandizing but her realistic opinion of herself is, if anything, too harsh and limiting. She is easily carried away but she is also a little too quick to pull herself back.
If Jeff and Alex are each other’s shadow, then it may be that Trudeau isn’t just beating up on Jeff for the sheer, mean pleasure of getting something out of his system.
He’s using Jeff’s goofiness to highlight what is good and endearing in Alex while allowing us to keep in mind that she, like all of us, can be frail and foolish in our ways.
I just hope that at some point soon we find out that when he was a young war correspondent in Vietnam Rick accidentally caused an air strike to be called in on B.D.’s platoon’s position.
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