The Underwater Welder
by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf, 2012)

Jack Joseph is an underwater welder with a pretty wife, a baby on the way and a crushing load of memories that won't quit plaguing him. The son of a local salvage diver who gathered scrap for a living while drinking his life away and alienating his son, Jack repairs submerged piping in a tiny, middle-of-nowhere Nova Scotia town. He is haunted by the disappearance of his father on Halloween night 20 years ago during a dive. All of his life he's wanted an answer to the mystery surrounding his father's disappearance, as well as some evidence that his father was more than just a sad drunk.

Frozen in anger and sadness, Jack is unable to let go of the past and is on the verge of emotionally abandoning his soon-to-be-family, in much the same way his father did, when he has a life-changing encounter. During a dive he chose to go on in order to escape his wife's labor, Jack finds a watch given to him by his father just before he vanished. This event propels Jack into what appears to be another reality, one that gives him the chance to confront, and perhaps let go of, the past.

There's room here for a good ghost story, and for most parts of the book, it actually is a quite compelling, Twilight Zone-y kind of tale. The best ghost stories have a heavy-duty emotional investment, and this one does pack enough of a wallop to create a fair degree of disquiet. Jack doesn't want to leave the past because he feels he can't, or really, that he shouldn't, feeling as though he has some obligation to find out why his father vanished on a routine dive. He's weighed down by choices made as a child, choices that at the time seemed innocent but which later had destructive consequences. Though realistically Jack should not feel guilt over outcomes which would have by any measure been impossible to predict, he can't stop himself from feeling responsible. This is the story's core and it's one for everyone who rationalizes and hangs on to loss before finally finding ways to let go of the past.

The story unfolds in stark, black-and-white panels combined with hazy ink washes during moments of less certainty, when memories and dreams come visiting, making life more nebulous. All throughout, during flashbacks and other states of being, there's a sense of another world pressing in, a world from the past or from a timeline running parallel to the present reality. Toward the end, after Jack literally emerges into a new world from his surreal trip, the art turns away from sharp distinctions, becoming a steady stream of gray washes, indicating a variety of things: Jack's acceptance of his need to let go of his father, the perquisite of undergoing a certain death of his own, coming to terms with fatherhood, all part of understanding that life is not sharply defined and comings in landscapes that change color and texture all the time.

We can't compromise when it comes to memories. The things we bury in ourselves will always come back, guiding our actions in ways we can't even fathom until we are suddenly so far gone, so far lost in another reality that we have to swim back to the surface or die.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 July 2014

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