Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me is the story of two young people—Edna (white) and Bonna (African-American)—coming to terms with the inequalities of race and class. The book follows Edna and Bonna as they become friends in a neighborhood changed by white flight. Throughout their friendship, the two girls are confronted with the realities of discrimination wherever they go. Written in the 1980s and set in the 1970s, the book remains as relevant as ever in the present. We’re excited to share an excerpt from the book’s 2017 reissued release.
The night we made the Record Player Night Club I couldn’t sleep from thinking about more and more ideas for it. We could have parties. We could open up the door to the garage and have American Bandstand. We could set up charts for rating the records. “Is this record a Dream? Or a Dud?” We could spray-paint every part of the whole room pure gold and people would come in and faint from the amazement of it. And finally I couldn’t help it, I got out of bed and walked on my toes down the hall and opened the basement door.
The concrete was freezing cold on my feet and I stood in the dark a long time waving my hand around before I found the string to pull on the light. The room was still exactly perfect. I started picking up records and pretending I was being interviewed on television about the room; how did I think up the idea for it, was I in fact a genius, was it hard to drag the table over, how many records did I have, all that.
I wanted to play a record so bad. I wondered for a long time if I played it really soft could they even hear it upstairs. And then I remembered I couldn’t remember which way the loudness knob went and what if it was turned up the wrong way? I picked up the red record and looked at every wall through it and then I had the perfect idea.
In the darkroom our dad had set up under the basement steps there was a red light bulb. I took it and screwed it into a light in the Record Player Night Club. “Boy,” I thought, “is Lucy ever going to be surprised.” Being in the pitch dark Record Player Night Club when only the red light was on would put us in a perfect mood to listen to records because music sounds so completely different in the dark.
SHE CAME OVER
In our night club we invented this dance where we would put the lighted end of a flashlight in our mouths and just move around in slow motion with our cheeks lit up like we were just sad, lonely ghosts who loved all music except for one certain song that would suddenly make us go wild and strangle people, and we were doing this dance when Bonna Willis first pounded on the door that led in from the garage to the record room. You better believe it made us jump.
There are good things about Bonna Willis and there are bad things about Bonna Willis, and right now I shouldn’t be caring about any of them because right now we hate each other’s guts and I don’t guess that is going to change this June the way it usually does when school is out. Now that we’re older you can bet all of that’s over. I already know she won’t be caught dead talking to no little honky girl this year, and the same goes for her only backwards using the word I won’t say.
The only reason me and Bonna ever ended up friends in the first place is because when it would finally get hot outside, and everybody in our neighborhood would take their inner tubes and go down to the lake, we were the only ones left stuck on this stupid street. I could never go to the lake because I might drown and Bonna could never go because her little brother did drown. Yeah he drownt. He drownt and that is part of the reason Bonna’s mother acts the way she does and another part of the reason Bonna can’t ever go no more than two blocks from her house except for school, to keep an eye on her in case her mother tries to do something funny again like go down Crowley hill in just a robe and shower cap, but even I can’t stand to remember that because I like Bonna’s mother. I knew her from when before Elvin died and she was still acting OK. Elvin wasn’t the only one of them who died you know, because there was another brother named Cleveland who got shot by accident in Washington D.C. where Bonna lived before they had to come out here to just get away from trouble.
They’ve got a school picture of him up on their wall and I have stared at it many times even though I feel embarrassed at how he’s just smiling and not knowing nothing about what is going to happen to him. I know. Me, a girl he never met in a town he never even saw knows exactly the ending and even after the ending. How his whole family moves away afterwards and leaves the place where he used to live, leaves all the sidewalks and the steps and the doors he used to open and shut, and comes all the way out here to my street. I know how his sister is going to hate this place so much that one time she shouts that she hates him too for making them come here, and how her father will cross that living room flying and slap her across the face in front of He Don’t Give A Damn Who. And how that picture of Cleveland smiling will just hang there and hang there on the wall in a house on a street in a city he could never have dreamed of even if he dreamed a hundred million dreams.
Sometimes I start thinking what happened to all his things? His pencils, his shirt, his comb, his shoes, his everything, until I just have to close my eyes and think of something else.
And other times I want to memorize that picture. Know every part of it. You’d think you could run out of things to notice in one picture pretty fast, but you don’t. Every time I look at it I can find something new. Like his chipped tooth or the way the one side of his collar is turned under. How he wrote his name in the corner slanted up and underlined. The way you can tell the pen wouldn’t work right, how he had to go over each letter until you could read it: Love From Your Loving Son.
The last time I was there—and I couldn’t believe I never noticed it before—I saw a tiny chickenpox scar on his cheek in the exact same place Lucy has one.
I remember once in a magazine I saw three pictures of a man who died falling out of a hot air balloon. They showed him getting closer and closer to the ground. One. Two. Three.
Doesn’t it seem that if you can take a picture of the thing before it happens, you can stop it? You can stop time long enough to at least yell a warning?
I imagine being able to go back into that picture of Cleveland and save him. I imagine being able to go back and whisper “Look out” into his ear.
And after I saved him, well, maybe he would beg me to be his girlfriend.
OUR FIRST DAY
Back then, the day she first pounded on the door of the Record Player Night Club, all I knew about Bonna was that I had to watch out for her, everybody did. Because she would get after you for no reason, swearing to beat the asses of every-one in our neighborhood on a rotating basis. That was the main topic of her conversation: ass beating. And it wasn’t just all talk and no action either. I guess she’s just about the best ass beater I have ever met in my life, boys included.
The news got out to her about us having our own record player and when I opened the door Lucy took the flashlight out of her mouth and shined it right into Bonna’s face and said “You have the right to remain silent,” and I about fell over when I saw it was her standing there with about ten records she wanted to play. That was a long time ago because Elvin was still alive then and she had him with her, and we still had the rule of no Negro kids can come in our house. At first I worried about how was I supposed to explain the rule to Bonna, and then I suddenly realized that we were in the basement and the door came into it from the garage. It would be OK because they could come inside without ever coming inside the real part of the house.
I had never really seen Bonna close up and the first thing I noticed about her was that for earrings she had little pieces of broom straws with the ends burnt stuck through her ears.
I asked her way later what was the first thing she noticed about me and she said how much I looked like the what-me-worry guy on the Mad magazine, but she wasn’t saying it for offense. You can’t control the first thing you notice about someone.
Bonna’s records had a screaming sound that I had never heard before, but I tried to look like naturally I had heard them all about a million times. There would be a man screaming, and I really mean screaming, and then all of these people would scream back. She said the man’s name was James Brown and told me that the song he was singing was called “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I had never heard of being proud about being a Negro so I wondered was this a joke song or what? She told me that black panthers were coming to beat the whitey’s ass and I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I said “I know that. Who doesn’t know that?”
She put on another record and told me she was going to do a dance that her cousin showed her called the Tighten Up. “I know that dance,” I said.
“Prove it,” she said.
I stood there looking at her. “I don’t feel like it,” I said.
“You lie you die,” she said and that made Lucy laugh and say “you lie you die” over and over like it was the best poem she ever heard in her life.
“I’ll show you how,” Bonna said. “I just learned it from my cousin so I know no one out here knows it yet.” She put the needle on the record. “Stand over here,” she said, pointing next to her. “Go sideways like this and move your one hand around fast like this and move the other one over like this and when they say the part ‘Now make it mellow,’ move your arms like this.” And she bit on her lips and moved her hands in the shape of tornados.
“I said I just don’t feel like it, OK?” and I hoped she would just forget about it.
Bonna said “Watch Elvin do it, come here Elvin, do the Tighten Up, watch him watch him, yeah Elvin come ON! Come ON! He funny, ain’t he? Elvin, you think you sly? Look at how he thinks he sly!”
Elvin was only five. I watched him do the mellow part thing perfectly and I felt so completely cheated out of something and I can’t even tell you what. Lucy did it too, but she was only Elvin’s age so it didn’t matter yet how stupid she looked.
Later, after they left and we went upstairs, I told Lucy we had better not tell Mom about Bonna and Elvin, and Lucy nodded her head. ♦
Lynda Barry has worked as a painter, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, playwright, editor, commentator, and teacher and found that they are very much alike. She lives in Wisconsin, where she is assistant professor of art and Discovery Fellow at University of Wisconsin Madison. Barry is the author of The Freddie Stories, One! Hundred! Demons!, The! Greatest! of! Marlys!, Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel, Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies!, and The Good Times are Killing Me, which was adapted as an off-Broadway play and won the Washington State Governor’s Award. She has written three bestselling and acclaimed creative how-to graphic novels for Drawn & Quarterly, What It Is which won the Eisner Award for Best Reality Based Graphic Novel and R.R. Donnelly Award for highest literary achievement by a Wisconsin author; Picture This; and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry was born in Wisconsin in 1956.