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Book Review

The Good Times Are Killing Me (2017)

Attempts to show the friendship between two little girls amid racism in 1960s Seattle fall short in this re-released debut novella.

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I try to stay open minded when it comes to issues like racism and look at them from different viewpoints. I dove into The Good Times Are Killing Me the first time around with no prior knowledge of its history and came out unsatisfied with the content of the story.  Originally published in 1988 by Sasquatch Books, it was the debut novel from Lynda Barry. Nearly thirty years on, Drawn and Quarterly is re-issuing the book with new artwork by the author herself – but even these additions did little to help with my frustrations at the content itself.

This coming-of-age story features Edna Arkins, a young white girl who’s developed a friendship with Bonna, a young African-American girl of the same age. Their friendship is set to the backdrop of 1960s Seattle when radical changes are starting to shape their small world. The adults in Edna’s life show their callous racism in many forms, including open displays, while at other times with little more than a passing comment.

Told from Edna’s point of view, the best way to describe her voice is “interesting”. It’s frustrating at times to see the world through her eyes or seeing how adults treat her and her sister Lucy. I’m no stranger to racism or the subject, but there were times where I couldn’t tell if the adults were being racist because they were hateful or just plain ignorance. It’s a blurry line to draw and it’s a touchy issue I’ve seen hashed out many times, with varying results.

With that in mind, I expected a touching story about the friendship between two little girls and the trials they faced together against the world around them. It didn’t feel as if that story was told at all, but one relayed secondhand by someone who heard it from the friend of a friend. Bonna never takes center stage and for most of the story she seems like only a passing thought to Edna. There’s little genuine emotion expressed whenever she’s mentioned, and this made me feel Edna was right in suggesting it was only their mutual circumstances and location  – and not any natural attraction – that caused them to be friends..

And I feel bad for saying it, but I didn’t like Edna at all. While reading I kept telling myself, “Okay, she’s a little girl, she’s not that smart, the world is a bad place etc. etc.” But even after a second reading I still didn’t care for her. Edna’s attitude came off as shallow and cold-hearted to those around her, and even cruel at times, like when she’s interacting with her baby sister.

At one point she and Lucy work together to make a record club for the new record player their dad bought them. Together, they hang records on the wall and Edna even finds a red light to install when Lucy walks around their house for days looking through a red record saying how beautiful the world looked. Edna is eager to share the record club she built with her little sister to her older cousin Sharon to impress her.  While waiting on the steps for her cousin to show up, Lucy keeps insisting she wants to show Sharon the record club, too. Edna gets fed up with her little sister and shoves her off the steps. Lucy falls to the ground and starts to cry, running away to hide in her room.

During this time Edna questions why her sister is so stupid, never feeling  any remorse for making her baby sister cry. Her attitude towards her little sister’s feelings repeats itself again later, leaving me wondering why none of the adults attempted to correct her bad behavior.

The adults are hardly any better. The only remotely entertaining character throughout Edna’s story is her Aunt Margaret, a bored housewife with too much time and money on her hands. From lying to get Edna into piano lessons to constantly looking down on her niece’s family for not being as well off financially, it made me roll my eyes. Edna’s mother just seems bitter for most of the story and, sorry to say, a horrible mom and a hypocrite to boot. When Edna asks her mother why Bonna and people like her aren’t allowed in their house, her mom slaps her, explaining how God made everyone equal and that she’ll understand when she’s older.

Her mom has a similar reaction when her daughter brings home a slip from school stating she needs a flute to participate in music lessons at school. Edna’s mother berates her about the flute, going so far as to ask her daughter where she thinks the money will come from to afford the instrument.

I can understand the reasoning Edna’s mom has to a point, but her line of logic to me just didn’t make any sense. Why not just be honest with Edna and tell her the flute isn’t something she could afford right now? Or tell her to drop music lessons and try again next year if Edna is still interested? Why slap Edna for asking questions about why people like Bonna aren’t allowed in the house? I can relate not having enough money to purchase things you want and even trying to explain complicated concepts to a child, but at times it felt Edna’s mom just took things too far, or reacted to them in a way I could see damaging her daughter in the future.

And Bonna? She barely shows up throughout the story, except on a camping trip with Edna and her aunt and joining the girl scouts. The brief time the two are together it didn’t feel like they were friends at all, but just forced to be within the vicinity of each other. These characters didn’t work off of each other at all and most of their interactions felt forced anyway.

I know Lynda Barry’s debut novel has been hailed as a “classic” and a “masterpiece”, and I’ll admit this re-release was my first exposure to the story; in fact, I only learned it was first published in 1988 after my initial reading, wanting to dive in without prejudice. Thinking that I was being overly harsh, I re-read it with a more critical eye the second time around. Unfortunately, I still felt the same way afterwards and my opinion of Edna remained the same.

I trust that The Good Times Are Killing Me was written with good intentions, but ultimately that’s not enough to overcome the generally lackluster storytelling. The characters lack in their development and show little emotion, and given the potentially touchy subject matter I feel readers deserve better than what’s being presented.