John’s Dough

You know what’s awesome? The new Chester Brown autobiographical graphic novel. Anyone who has read Chester Brown before (Louis Riel, I Never Liked You) knows what to expect from the gifted writer / artist. Quietly moving, stark and sometimes downright bleak stories told in a clever voice with wonderfully detailed (despite their often miniature size) illustrations. Like many in the Drawn & Quarterly stable, Toronto’s own Chester Brown has made himself something of an icon in the comics industry.

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Some writers (Jeffrey Brown and Adrian Tomine for example) will hand you a memoir that is so unbelievably personal you wonder how they ever found the nerve to relate their experiences out loud. And then there’s Chester Brown’s book Paying for It. Over the course of its 227 page narrative, Brown goes from a terrible break-up with long term girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee to deciding romantic relationships aren’t really for him anymore. The problem, as many single people will attest, is that interpersonal sexual shenanigans is often tricky business when there isn’t another participant around. When faced with a similar conundrum the solution for Brown was (and presumably still is) to throw himself head-first into Toronto’s prostitution market.

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Now, before you get all judgy-judge on good ol’ Chester, you just might want to head on over to your local library and check out a copy of this book. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating insight into the mindset of men who willingly adopt one of the most taboo labels society has to bestow: the John.

Every chapter in the memoir is named after one of the prostitutes, and what’s interesting about Brown’s involvement with these women is that he tends to carry on personal and meaningful relationships with each of them. It’s pretty rare that he only sees a particular woman once, and he frequently takes part in monogamous relationships with the escorts he visits. At one point he is asked to leave his existing living situation (with Sook-Yin) and finds solace in the fact that now he can host his dates in his own apartment.

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Many of the fascinating conversations Brown has with his partners are documented and they really serve as a window in to the industry on both sides. Day-to-day details of the women’s lives are illuminated and a lot of questions get answered for the layperson who really doesn’t know anything about prostitution, the laws and social mores, or anything. Do prostitutes live where they work? Should you tip? Do they feel like they’re being exploited? Is it safe to go to a brothel? Is it dangerous to have a prostitute over to your house? All of these questions are tackled as you watched Chester awkwardly wade into a lifestyle that many find contemptible.

Despite its subject matter the book isn’t heavy at all. In fact I’d say it’s the least-weighty of all Brown’s books. Gone is the navel-gazing introvert – well not gone exactly – but the Chester in this book has a new-found sense of purpose. He documents several conversations with friends who clearly do NOT approve of what he’s doing (Joe Matt and Seth are particularly hilarious) but even they really seem to come around when they realize Brown has put a LOT of thought into his untraditional romantic life.

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Simply put, this book is amazing. From a voyeurism standpoint, it’s just a story you can’t put down partly because it’s a great read, but mostly because it’s true. Oh, and because it took a ton of balls for Chester Brown to publicly out himself and then deliver an absolute smack in the face to the North American puritans who would judge him for it. Paying for It spends a considerable amount of time tackling the endless debates that always crop up regarding the subject. A 23-chapter appendix and a whole pile of notes fill out the back end of the book, openly confronting topics like human trafficking, sexual objectification, pimping, drugs, women’s rights, etc.

The whole package is a brilliantly considered piece and one I’m really glad I picked up.

– Ian

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