Hi, How Are You

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan. Two Dollar Radio, 2016. 9781937512453.

Underneath the copyright information, this book starts with a disclaimer: while it draws from a real life, it should be considered a creative work of fiction. The text starts with a warning: “Beware: I don’t think you should read this. I’m warning you.” followed by “There are devils inside.”

The life it draws from is Daniel Johnston’s, a tremendously influential musician and artist shaped by his struggle with bipolar disorder. In this story, Daniel starts making art to counter the demons who tell him that he’s a piece of shit and make his thoughts race and his arms tingle. “He believed he could save himself by making things, but he was wrong. He was really wrong.” His periods of intense creativity are interrupted by breakdowns and recoveries with the help of family and friends.

The illustrations are in Cavolo’s stye: vivid pictures filled with angels, demons, flames, and eyes reflecting intense creativity and intense suffering. Cavolo includes some of common subjects of Johnston’s own paper-and-marker and watercolor art like frogs, comic book heroes, and a man with the top of his head missing. The story is simply told, almost like a picture book, and doesn’t romanticize Johnston’s life: “But then one night Daniel physically assaulted his manager with a lead pipe. So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art — then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.”

The artist and writer have, like a lot of people*, fallen under Johnston’s spell. If you listen to his music (there’s lots on hoopla if your library has a subscription) and watch the documentary about his life, it’s hard not to. This book will hook you the same way, but it’s open about the fact that there isn’t a happy ending to his story, just like there isn’t a happy ending to any real story, and after reading it you’ll have a part of this amazing person inside your head.

*Yes, I am also under his spell. I started with a Dead Milkmen cover of Rocket Ship, then on to Kathy McCarty’s wonderful album of covers, then the documentary, then Johnston’s music.

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