“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we discuss one of the most beautiful short stories written in the last 20 years – “Pop Art” from Joe Hill’s collection 20th Century Ghosts.
It’s been years since I first read it and I think now is finally the time I talk about Joe Hill’s short story “Pop Art.” I’ve agonized over this one for ages and all I could come up with is “damn it all, this is beautiful” but I think I need to expound on that idea for my own sanity.
I picked up Hill’s book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, back in 2013 and devoured it (and subsequently everything he’s published before and since) and still go back to this story on a regular basis. It bothers me. It profoundly bothers me. This is one of his earlier publications, originally released in With Signs and Wonders back in 2002, but it remains poignant and beautifully painful to this day.
Everyone has a best friend, the one person they believe understands them, but few experience something that makes them the person they are because of these individuals. I’ve experienced this through friends, through loved ones, who have helped to carve me into who I am and I know that the loss of these people would break me (looking at you, you know who all you are).
I’ve dealt with crippling depression my whole life – family stresses, cultural demands, financial stress, and maybe just good ol’ chemical imbalance have always left me a worry-wort and an over-contemplative vacuum. Joe Hill really got that down here, each line of it making me think of the people I love in my life, of what I would do without them and how it would affect every aspect of my being. It’s not an easy read for those who hold their loved ones close, who define themselves by the people they care about, and on my first read it left me shaking. When you feel isolated it can be a light at the end of the tunnel to have someone stumble into your life, to help you realize that you don’t have to put on the airs of a loner because you have problems connecting.
The story revolves around two boys, one being your standard human with a disturbingly awful home life, and the other inflatable, constantly in danger of death (just go with it). Tracking from their meeting to their separation, it chronicles a year in their lives as each learns what friendship can draw out of them and each discovers the complications of family, the idea that it can be more than just blood. It’s a simple story of childhood love and connection, one that tackles a lot of major themes and social issues but at its heart it just nails platonic love between two people who aren’t bound by standard ties. In an existence that virtually depends on my friends this struck such a chord with me.
Art, the titular character that can be popped, is Jewish. Right off the bat Joe Hill makes you think he’s going to tackle anti-semitism. It’s a blatant avenue that he doesn’t explore in-depth because he’s interested in other things, but in this he weaves homophobia and racial/social ostracism in such a way that you can look at the person next to you and just…wonder how they’re doing, maybe want to give them a hug. Art’s family isn’t practising, instead deciding to focus on artistic endeavors. The idea of a soul, starved for creativity, is attractive to our nameless protagonist and he dives in headfirst. He begins to feel familial belonging, a sense of care in his interactions that he has never known.
I’ve never been abandoned by family, but I’ve felt the need to get away. Reading about these two boys hit a nerve, the idea of a person starved for approval and support that is gasping for air felt so personal. It should feel personal, as every person needs to create something for their own. When Art can’t play music like his mother she doesn’t express disappointment, she hands him a camera and tells him to make music with imagery. One of the most beautiful sentiments this sentimental story has is that you don’t need to impress your family, you just need to find the best version of yourself that you can. Create something, anything at all, that makes you feel alive and new and whole.
I talk a lot about death. It’s a thing I have given a lot of time to since I was a young kid, when my great-uncle died and I looked into that coffin and saw that placid face and thought “this is where we all go.” Joe Hill spends a ton of time on death (he’s a horror scion after all) but he’s never gotten this poetic with it. I rarely cry when I read, I’m more of a film-cry-guy, but this absolutely destroyed me. The idea that your experiences mold you, lead you to a career and love and a life, can really cause an influence to someone suffering depression. That light at the end of the tunnel, that goal we all have to achieve, is to unburden ourselves of the pain of the mortal coil and see what lies beyond. So many believe it’s nothing; hell on my rough days I believe that as well, but we all want it to be something.
Escape from life is something Art spends a lot of this story talking about. He wants to be an astronaut, to leave this world behind, and go somewhere he is designed for. He’s virtually weightless, he has no lungs or organs or muscles, all he has is an easily destroyed skin that leaves him vulnerable to virtually everything on the planet. He gets the idea in his head that he would rather fly away, to leave and see something else. When confronted with the idea that he shouldn’t want to leave and never come back he simply says, “But I’m going to have to do that anyway. Everyone has to do that. You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”
There’s a dichotomy between the idea of leaving to escape and leaving because you have to. Art spends so much in build-up for what he knows is inevitable, his life a never-ending battle to make it through each day, that he even practices. Flying around with a handful of balloons, capturing the images below, he’s preparing to float away into oblivion and look down on those that remain. Art is a caretaker, one of few wholly good people that we get to meet in this life. These people are rare and beautiful, something to be cherished, and he is loved so dearly by those around him but there are those that always look to break the good in the world.
The protagonist’s father and eventually the family dog are two of these kinds of creatures. The dog, Happy, is bought as a deterrent so that Art doesn’t come around anymore. Even the father cannot stand the pet, as he is too worthless of a human being to house-train it and instead just locks it in a pen outside. But the creature is vicious, joyous in its own filth and the father angry in anything but his own. The narrator eventually believes that these two are representative of a subsect of humanity, a brutal group that wishes for filth and chaos and pain. He says that, “it is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk – and I am thinking here of both canines and men both – more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”
Never one for subtlety, Hill is gifting us with a moment to understand the people in our lives that desire hurt. The protagonist’s father, Happy the dog, the bullies that hurt Art, all are painted as those who don’t want to deal with things they don’t understand, their lack of control, and instead just want to shit all over anything beautiful. Everyone has an Art and everyone has someone that has been shit all over, the beauty of these people broken down and under assault from moment one of their lives and it never goes away. Whether it is a person or art itself, these individual moments and people of love are always broken down by those around us. There is no reprieve, either, as Hill allows us to witness what happens to those who do not have enough support behind them (and I’m thinking here of both canines and men both).
Hold those you love close. Hell, hold Joe Hill close if it makes you happy (I know I do), but hold someone. Those you care about cannot be relinquished and they should not be, because their time in your life is finite and the impact they have on your very existence is more than you could possibly imagine. When I talk about those I love I think of this story, think of Art Rothman and our unnamed storyteller (who I believe represents us all), and think of how I must cling to these people before time inevitably forces them out of your life. When you talk about them will you say things about what they did, what you knew of them, or will you talk about them as family, as a loved one, before they “ran out of sky?”