Last Exit Before Toll
Charles is driving south for a business trip but finds himself killing time at a small-town coffee shop when his car overheats. That summation of the premise of Last Exit Before Toll is too simple and almost irrelevant. This thought-provoking little book isn’t about what happens; it’s about the search for authenticity and a simpler way of life in an overly busy world. To fully enjoy it, you have to be willing to accept and experience a different pace, just as Charles does.
The story captures a different way of living than that usually seen in the media. The country folk who populate the area aren’t slow, or inbred, or objects of fun. They simply live differently, in a way that Charles has been needing without realizing it. Yet the South isn’t shown as some kind of ideal refuge, either. There are always consequences to choices.
In this case, Charles makes his choice by not choosing. He goes with the flow, borne along by the current, ignoring the warning signs, like insomnia, that something is wrong until someone or something else forces it to his attention. As he says when he calls in when delayed, he doesn’t want to cause any trouble. Taken too far, that attitude results in a man who’s lost sight of himself. Small details, like the taste of pot roast, start to bring him back in touch.
It’s an odd choice to see a writer/artist team tackle a subject that demands so much attention to the quiet spaces between events. It requires a belief in each other that carries through to the story, which relies on a fundamental faith in human nature and being decent to other people. Last Exit Before Toll is written by Neal Shaffer and pencilled by Christopher Mitten with digital inking by Dawn Pietrusko.
The art carries a good deal of weight during the lengthy silences necessary to establish a different sort of atmosphere, both within the story and while reading it. This isn’t some kind of mystery or suspense story (contrary to the back cover blurb). Instead, the book provokes introspection, if you’re willing to give yourself over to its mood.
At times, the pacing is unexpected. Intervening scenes feature people that are more than cameos but less than full-fledged supporting characters. This isn’t a neatly wound-up story, like a ball of yarn, nor is it a completely realized scarf or sweater. It’s something in-between, a jumping-off point that requires the reader’s involvement for completion.
Neal Shaffer also wrote One Plus One and The Awakening. Christopher Mitten also illustrated The Tomb, written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir.