Nothing about Fantagraphics' new edition of Jules Feiffer's 1963 novel Harry, The Rat With Women indicates that it's a reprint, which might be considered deceptive. Then again, nothing in the book itself particularly indicates it either. Looked at one way, that suggests a remarkably timeless story, one that transcends its era's concerns, literary conceits, and cultural detritus. Alternately, it suggests a book removed enough from reality to be equally irrelevant in any period. Harry is a bit of both: a sketchy satirical fable that's rarely pointed, though fairly funny.
Feiffer, a playwright, screenwriter, children's author, and 40-year-plus Village Voice cartoonist, has rarely tried his hand at novels—Harry, The Rat With Women was his first, and it suggests that he hadn't really escaped short-form-media thinking when he wrote it. There's a start-to-finish narrative arc throughout, but it reads like a series of the sorts of nervy, wordy character sketches that comprised much of Feiffer's best-known comic-strip work. The titular Harry is a vapid narcissist spoiled in childhood by his perfect beauty and the unstinting adoration of his parents, who focus on him so completely that when a schoolteacher asks him what his father does, he replies "Love." As he ages, Harry shows no interest in sex or romance; lusting after someone else would mean diverting attention from himself. Similarly, occupations and studies would distract from self-admiration time, so he never finds a purpose, though power and a woman nearly as perfect as himself at least provide diversions.
Like all the book's characters, Harry is such a simple, extreme, outsized type that his story reads as a fantasy, a parody of society more than an observation about it. In the short run, as in his comics, Feiffer excels at this sort of comedic hyperbole; his portrayal of Harry's childhood and his ruminations on the mythic origins and development of love are colorful, dreamy, and clever. But as Harry's eventual spiritual development causes a strange physical degeneration, the book's metaphorical thrust gets muddy. The seeming message—that arrogance conquers all, and selflessness destroys—seems unlikely given Feiffer's other work, but it's hard to glean his actual intentions. Harry has its rewards in Feiffer's playful impressions of solipsists and society types, but it's worth noting that this prose curiosity didn't propel him to give up his day job.