The purpose of a memoir is to tell the truth about oneself with a purpose. Not to just lay out all the family garbage, but to make it mean something to the reader. Jeffrey Koterba does that masterfully in his humorous memoir.
Koterba is a nationally syndicated political cartoonist who didnâ€™t have an easy path toward success in his field. Not many artists or writers do, but his path had even more challenges than the standard rejections and missed opportunities. He has Tourette’s syndrome; a condition he was not aware of until he was in his thirties. According to his father, who also had Touretteâ€™s, they just suffered from a â€œnervous habitâ€, so Jeff never received testing as a child. The twitches and uncontrolled sounds made him a subject of ridicule and bullying.
Jeff also grew up in an extremely dysfunctional family.
The father, Art, was a frustrated inventor who worked as a bookkeeper for the Union Pacific Railroad and repaired televisions at home. In addition, he collected things that he thought he could fix and sell so the house, garage, and yard overflowed with his â€œsomedayâ€ projects. At one point in the book, Jeff describes his delight at finding part of the living room carpet free from clutter and he made â€œcarpet angelsâ€.
Art was also an alcoholic, and, like most alcoholics, his behavior was erratic and frustrating. He constantly compared Jeff unfavorably to his brother, Artie, who was the â€œgood son.â€ Jeffâ€™s mother, who was the typical peacemaker in a dysfunctional situation, tried her best to smooth everything over. She was Jeffâ€™s champion when he was a boy and always tried to get Art to recognize and acknowledge Jeffâ€™s artistic talents.
Being raised in a dysfunctional family creates all kinds of problems, but Koterba does not present them to solicit sympathy or pity. Most of the book is written with humor and pragmatism. This is just the way life was for the Koterba family who might be awakened in the middle of the night to â€œdisposeâ€ of old televisions in the vacant lot behind their house.
Despite the drinking and broken dreams and broken promises, Jeff somehow managed a positive outlook. â€œI also know we are a family filled with regret. We are the clouds of smoke left behind on the launch pad as the rocket soars skyward. But even in our fog of disappointment, the rocket itself, its power and speed, gives us hope and makes us believe that at any moment our luck might change.â€
That hope gave him strength as he pursued his dream of being a cartoonist. He idealized his Uncle Ed, a member of the White House Press Corps who died in a plane crash. Uncle Ed got his start at the Omaha World Herald, and Jeff held fast to that as a talisman. Maybe it meant he could, too.
That dream came true in 1989.
A cartoonist, like a poet, learns to tell a story with few words, and Jeff is a master at concise, straight-forward prose that is engaging on many levels. Inklings is a book rich with humor, poignancy, and truth, but it is never sappy or sentimental. It is a terrific read, with only one flaw. The adult years, especially his relationship with his former wife and his son are not explored with the detail of the rest of the book. Perhaps because there is another memoir in the works?
Jeff has won numerous awards, and his work regularly appears in many major U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Washington Post and CNN.Â His cartoons regularly appear in the Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, and Best Political Cartoons of the Year publications. He is also lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the â€œPrairie Catsâ€, a swing band based in Omaha, Nebraska.
Hardcover: 272 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (November 3, 2009)