Drawing on Anxiety

updated 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1991 01:00AM

WELCOME TO THE SPRUCE LITTLE burg of Ridgefield, Conn., where—as in towns throughout New England—autumn is being worshiped. With its white clapboard homes, its October trees fanned out like peacocks in red and gold, and the occasional sound of tires whispering over fallen leaves, this place is certainly picturesque. To Roz Chast, though—who once labeled foliage "kitsch in nature"—the great outdoors might as well put a sock in it. Chast prefers to stay inside and pursue mild activities at room temperature. Right now this blond and bespectacled woman is perched on a stool, looking around her kitchen with vague anxiety. Excitement enough.

There are those who share Chast's commitment to the still life—namely, most of the characters she has dreamed up over the past 13 years in hundreds of cartoons, mainly for The New Yorker. Lumps like "LLOYD: a man who wouldn't know a good time if it hit him on the head, knocked him out cold, tied his hands and feet, and left him in a little tool shed to perish." Or "SUSAN D: The woman without a heyday." Of course, Chast herself, 36, is now having a heyday of her own: her fourth collection of cartoons, Proof of Life on Earth, just published and a new show at the Illustration Gallery in New York City. With her husband, short-story writer Bill Franzen, and their two kids (Ian, 4, and Nina, 11 months), she has also had to cope with the upheaval of a recent move to Ridgefield from Brooklyn. Through it all, though, Chast has remained on the cutting edge of the ordinary. "Fortunately," she says, "it's just as mundane here as it was there."

How can a woman fascinated by, for example, milk spoilage have survived and thrived in the brutal business of magazine cartooning? Once upon a time a raft of periodicals from Esquire to Look to The Saturday Evening Post published cartoons regularly. Today virtually the only game in town is The New Yorker, which sifts some 3,000 submissions a week and buys a mere 20 to 25.

"I thought immediately her work was something important," says New Yorker cartoon editor Lee Lorenz, who first saw Chast's drawings when she dropped off a portfolio in 1978. "At first, though, a lot of readers, and some people around the magazine, felt very uncomfortable with it. I got a lot of flak." No one had ever seen characters quite like Chast's before—hunch-shouldered geeks with bad haircuts, sporting thrift-shop clothing and poleaxed expressions. Even more peculiar was Chast's drawing style, which is scrawny and childlike. "But the best cartoons are a perfect blend of drawing and idea," says Lorenz. "I can't imagine her cartoons being drawn any other way."

That's because Chast looks at the world with a child's fixity and a child's fears. "My first and biggest cartoon love was Charles Addams," she says. "I like the creepiness in his cartoons." And there's a dark side in her own work too, for Chast views the humdrum with a fair amount of dread, which she spins into drawings like "MILK TOAST: One of the world's most deadly foods!" Her husband notes that "Roz never seems to finish a beverage—she always leaves a half inch in the bottom of the glass. I kept asking why, and she finally admitted she's worried about residue. She's afraid it might be different down there."

Chast's chronic caution also crops up when she is dealing with machines. Especially her car. "I've been taking driving lessons for about a year," she says, "with some time off to have my second baby. I still don't like to go more than 25 mph. And I think about all the things that can happen, like having the gas pedal suddenly stick to the floor. I read books on what to do when things go wrong—exactly the kind of thing I shouldn't look at. Deep down, though, I feel if I'm going to drive, I should know what to do if the steering wheel comes off in my hands."

"She's been doing a lot of cartoons about driving lately," says Lorenz. " 'The Poky Little Parkway' was one memorable one. This is a Chastian superhighway divided into five lanes: "Slow, Really Slow, Incredibly Slow, Crawl and Standstill."

Somehow it's hardly surprising then to find that Bob Mankoff, a fellow New Yorker cartoonist, considers Chast "sort of a hypersensitive person. In fact, she and I share this thing of being hypochondriacs. Sometimes when we cartoonists are all having lunch in New York, Roz will come in with some complaint. Once it was 'fizzy fingers.' "

Chast also enjoys doing cartoons full of instructional nonsense, usually featuring some addled professorial type with a pointer. "My parents were into school," says Chast, "so I suppose it's somewhat related."

Her parents were in fact Brooklyn public-school educators—her father a French and Spanish teacher, her mother the assistant principal at a grade school—and Chast was their only child. "They didn't approve of cartoons," she says, "especially comic books. So I'd read Archie and Veronica at friends' houses." After Midwood High School, she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design and briefly considered a career in painting, "but I missed the words." The year after graduating she sold her first New Yorker drawing, and today, out of more than 40 cartoonists with first-refusal contracts there, Chast is one of only two women.

But it's hardly a secure life. With New Yorker fees averaging $800 per drawing—and she doesn't sell one every week—Chast, like most of her colleagues, does some advertising work on the side. She has done sketches for Absolut Vodka and Audi, among others. Yet Chast has passed on offers to write screenplays ("Do I seem like the Hollywood type?" she asks). She'd rather do cartoons—including some lately about the horrors of home-owning and the parade of parasitical workmen. "I feel like we've got this neon sign on our house," she says. "NEW HOMEOWNERS HERE. COME AND GET IT!"

At that moment Chast spies an unfamiliar pickup truck full of tree limbs pulling into her driveway. "You see?" she cries. "They're coming here! They're going to come and ring the doorbell and tell us we have to have our trees repaired!" Her husband has to hurry out and fend off the firewood.

Serene though it seems, Ridge-field may indeed be teeming with sinister elements—at least enough to satisfy Chast. Every week, for example, she and her husband pore over the police log in the local paper. "So far," says Chast, "my favorite is 'Frightened person on Main Street.' No explanation. Isn't that great?"

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