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Surviving on the Streets: How to Go Down Without Going Out
posted September 29, 2003

Creator: Ace Backwords
Publishing Info: Loompanics, $14.95
Ordering Numbers: 1559502010 (ISBN)

It's unclear whether Ace Backwords began writing his primer on street life after his third long period of living homeless or during the time just before he moved into the relative safety of his Berkeley office. Publisher Loompanics began collecting the chapters in 1996 and finally published the book in 2002. Backwords had been inspired by the underground cartoonists of his youth to start publishing his own work in the mid-1970s. He enjoyed his widest audience as a strip cartoonist in alternative publications in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Backwords' most effective comics put a gently wry, humanistic spin on the various absurdities in social attitudes regarding the down and out. Surviving on the Streets includes several strips pertinent to the general subject matter as chapter heads; most are pretty dead-on and entertaining. In fact, it would have been nice to have more drawings instead of the murky photography that adds very little to the overall mood or informative nature of the volume. Still, even with five times the amount of art than the book currently holds this would remain a written work. Ace Backwords is definitely the most curious member of the recent group of cartoonists turned authors.

Backwords writes in much the same voice he cartoons. He makes a personal appeal to his perceived audience in pretty direct fashion; any digressions provide flavor and indicate that Backwords knows what he's talking about. According to press material that accurately picks up on the author's asserted intentions, Backwords has written this book for anyone "contemplating or more likely thrust by circumstances" into life on the streets. It's hard to imagine that someone would make such a life-altering decision by doing research. Still, the advice offered seems reasonable. Backwords makes several practical points on things like what to look for in a sleeping space, how to keep dry, and the importance of footwear. Some of the best parts of the book exude general common sense, like the repeated assertions that a prodigious amount of job-like effort needs to be exerted to remain jobless, and that meeting certain problems head-on or with violence can have the same effect or worse than simply avoiding them altogether. Think of it as an emotional primer for street life rather than a practical bag of tricks, and you get close to the spirit of what Backwords offers. Because of its fundamental connection to Backwords' life, Surviving the Streets also works as an emotional portrait of the writer/cartoonist. Some of the best writing comes in heartbreaking digressions into the nature of his loneliness. He switches back and forth between hating the life he's lived, and justifying it by drawing attention to its remarkable elements. Who hasn't done that? Even an odd diatribe about immigration's effect on homelessness serves as a reminder of how the cartoonist thinks and functions. You don't have to live on the street, or ever want to, to find common ground with the author.