Special to TLE
For weeks, now -- maybe even months -- I've been asking myself,
"Self, how in the sacred name of Virgil Partch do you review a book
I mean, I promised to do it. Rex F. May, a monumental wit whom the
world knows best as "Baloo" (meaning "Bear" in Urdu, if you'll recall
The Jungle Book, because Rex is the only ... no, you're not
quite ready for that) has been my good friend and occasional partner
for many years. Long before I met him, he'd written my favorite
cartoon (it was for Penthouse and I can't tell you about that
here, either), and he was a contributor, in the Golden Age of the 70s
to National Lampoon.
He's also a "cartoonist's cartoonist", often compared, with regard to
his drawing style and dry wit, to James Thurber, admired by every
serious practitioner of the trade, and among the most prolific and
widely published anywhere in the world, having written something like
750,000 "gags", as they're called, in a little over a quarter of a
And besides, I promised his mother.
Be that as it may, it isn't as if you can compliment the author (I
make a practice of never reviewing books I don't like) on his strong,
deep characterizations, the subtle but inevitable development of his
plot, or the breathtaking finale that leaves us wheezing through the
Gimme a break -- this is a book of cartoons.
All you can say is that it's wickedly funny and full to the brim
with the astonishing wisdom that characterizes its creator in all of
his endeavors. Which should be enough -- but it leaves the reviewer
with a hell of a gap in an 800-word review. I suppose I could add
that it's bitingly sarcastic, but the plain truth is that like Rex
himself, it's so gentle in its all-pervasive cynicism with regard to
power and institutions, that a more appropriate expression would
probably be "gummingly ironic".
You could also say that it's deviously anarchistic.
Or that it's polemic without being preachy.
And that may be the point. They say that a cartoonist's characters
usually resemble the cartoonist -- and that's certainly true here;
I've seen Rex and I know. But even more importantly, they tend to
reflect his entire approach to life -- and in this case, the freedom
You could give this innocent-looking little volume, say, to your
brother-in-law who works in the most vile, insidious bureaucracy this
side of the BATF, the Department of Motor Vehicles. He'd look through
it (probably in the bathroom on company time), chuckle, snort, laugh
out loud (his coworkers would wonder what he was doing in there),
then set it aside to sacrifice more babies or whatever they do down
at the DMV.
But a week later, his stomach will have begun to churn, he'll toss
and turn through the night, unable to sleep (and have nightmares,
when he does, of being trapped in one of Baloo's cartoons), he'll
grow shaky, nervous, sunken-eyed. Then he'll either quit his cushy
job to become a professional telephone daisy-stripper ("He loves you,
he loves you not, he loves you -- that'll be $2.99 a minute,
please.") or his actuarial life expectancy will be diminished by at
least half an hour.
A small victory, perhaps, but a victory nevertheless.
One bureaucrat down, 14,999,999 to go.
Some genuinely random examples: an obvious bureaucrat carrying a
briefcase labeled IRS, on a lady's doorstep: "It's your husband,
Ma'am -- he was shot while attempting to conceal income." (Unlike
most other cartoonists, only about half of Rex's captions end in
Medieval seneschal with long scroll to a king sitting on his throne:
"We've completed that study you ordered on the private sector, Sire
-- the only things left are two shoe-shine boys and a hot dog stand."
One shaven-headed prison inmate to another in their cell: "I got 75
years -- I was driving under the influence and ran over a spotted
Not that everything Rex does is political. He has a client telling a
psychiatrist, "Every time I go on an ego trip, I'm hijacked by
Or he has a traditional African native saying to a guy in a pith
helmet: "You're not here to provide famine relief? -- That's what you
But why give away the whole book for free, when the point here is to
urge you to buy it for yourself and as many others as possible? There
are several ways to accomplish that but you can start by writing to:
P.O. Box 336
Bedford, IN 47421
Or you can e-mail to email@example.com.
Or try their website at http://www.kiva.net/~jonabook.
Check it out!
Novelist L. Neil Smith, author of The Probability Broach and
Forge of the Elders, and publisher of The Libertarian
Enterprise, is the only official Libertarian Party candidate for
president in the state of Arizona.
Buy his books at