In ‘Roughneck,’ Not All Wounds Heal

Jeff Lemire new graphic novel is explosive and introspective.

The past has the power to haunt us. It can consume us and take over our lives. When it does, we find ourselves in a world of darkness, which is the very territory that Jeff Lemire’s latest graphic novel, Roughneck, occupies.

Readers familiar with the Eisner-nominated author’s masterpiece Essex County, about secrets and family bonds in a rural community, will find some familiar ground here in Roughneck. Derek Ouellette serves as Lemire’s protagonist, and Derek is broken — completely broken. As a young hockey star, he committed a “vicious attack” on an opposing team’s player. Consequently, Derek lost his spot on the team. This incident causes his life to spiral out of control. He turns to drinking, and bar fighting becomes a mere hobby to him. He speaks crudely, and his interactions are harsh and uncontrolled. Unfortunately, Derek falls into a situation where he can’t escape his reputation in his small town of Pimitamon, and that eats away at him. He lives a life void of attachment. That is until his sister, Beth, suddenly arrives back in town.

Beth’s appearance catches Derek off guard. Like him, she, too, is broken. She’s unexpectedly pregnant. She’s trying to escape her abusive boyfriend. She’s addicted to drugs. To make her situation worse, Beth overdoses on Oxycontin shortly after she arrives back in Pimitamon, and she winds up in the hospital. Derek agrees to take care of her, though. He takes her to an isolated hunting camp in the woods, where they both plan to recover — both physically and emotionally. Together, they begin on a tumultuous journey to find some sense of healing.

Will This Marriage End in Fire?

Lemire’s graphic novel sounds explosive, and it certainly is. However, it’s also quiet and introspective. Derek and Beth’s initial conversations are direct, but they carry a fragile undertone that rings of authenticity. After Beth comes home from the hospital, Derek tries to ease the tension in an early exchange of dialogue that he begins:

“Well, the fire’s low. How you feeling otherwise?”

“Like I’m a total mess.”

“Yeah? Well, so am I. Where does that leave us?

“Freezing our asses off in the bush together.”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

They speak with humor to soften the world that has, at least for now, consumed them both.

In what is the novel’s most moving frame, Lemire takes us back to what has to be the worst day from Derek and Beth’s childhood: the day they were in a tragic traffic accident that killed their beloved mother. It’s here that we see Derek’s past loving nature. He wraps his arms around his sister and comforts her. “It’s okay, Bethy. Don’t look. Don’t look at Mom,” he says. By Lemire including this tender flashback, we see how far Derek has fallen. Now, he struggles to even communicate with his sister. He’s a long way from being able to truly comfort her. It’s these intimate moments that make the overall narrative soar.

Roughneck is a simply-plotted story, but it’s so expertly executed that it seems complex — and even sophisticated. Lemire uses a circular style in storytelling. Abuse appears first as we learn of Derek and Beth’s mother living in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. Then, when Lemire presents Beth’s situation with her abuser, we see how tough the cycle is to break. Lemire uses this same circular motion when looking at Derek’s progression. He was once a hockey star. Now, he finds himself back in the rink — if only to recall those glory days.

Lemire explores classic American themes. There is isolation, loneliness, loss, and perseverance. Although Roughneck is a graphic novel, it should come with the term “literary” somewhere in its classification. This is a finely crafted work of fiction.

Lemire’s illustrations enrich Roughneck, and they capture the book’s moodiness with great success. The lines are harsh, drawn with jagged and tense strokes. The angles have a gritty feeling, too. The close-up shots of Derek’s face display his rugged nature, and they also show his internal pain. Lemire is just as successful in his renderings of Beth, which work to showcase her vulnerability as well as her strength.

Near the end of Roughneck, Beth goes to visit her abusive father, whom she hasn’t spoken to in many years. She tells him, “I wanted you to see that I’m still here. You — you almost killed me, but I’m still here.” Amidst all of her pain, she’s finding her footing. There’s hope for Lemire’s two troubled souls, and there’s hope for us, too. Jeff Lemire’s Roughneck shows us that overcoming a troubled past and finding peace might be a rocky road, but it’s one that’s worth the journey.

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