Last week, on the day after Thanksgiving, the line for the book signing at Bear Pond Books extended the full length of the store, all the way to the front door. Customers shopping for other titles carefully worked their way around the queue, or, on inquiring about it, picked up a copy of “Koren. In the Wild” and joined the line.
In the back of the store, at a small wooden table sat cartoonist Ed Koren. As each person reached him, Koren chatted with them, asking who the book was for and about their interests. All the time, his hand was at work. In seconds a little drawing emerged — so much more than just a quick salutation and signature.
The line of Koren’s fans had no idea that this personal attention was ahead. Koren, tucked behind the bookshelves, had no idea that the line was so long. It was a kind of Vermont Black Friday experience that might be fodder for the ever-curious cartoonist.
Koren’s latest book, “Koren. In the Wild,” with nearly 200 cartoons that originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine, was released in October by Button Street Press. Country life, exurbanites, ironies of rural living, cars, food and creatures are among the Brookfield cartoonist’s subjects. A preface by Howard Norman and an appreciation by Ben Cohen are the icing in this delightful volume.
Koren has been associated with The New Yorker since the early 1960s — more than 1,100 of his cartoons published there. He authored 10 earlier books, has illustrated many, many more, was Vermont’s second Cartoonist Laureate, and is a 31-year member of the Brookfield Fire Department.
“Much of the work I’ve done is musing about people who live in urban settings and people who live here and relationships between people who live there and here,” Koren said in a recent interview. “I never set out to work in these themes. It’s what over time I’ve been intrigued by. I’m always intrigued by the bewilderment that urban people have for life here.”
“I gravitated more to this life than city life, which I also love. I like the quality of life here, but I lived in the city for such a long time,” Koren said.
Koren’s ties to Vermont began in his youth. Before Columbia University, he studied at the Horace Mann School. One of his teachers there ran a summer theater in Waitsfield, the MacArthur Theater. In the early 1950s, Koren was in its apprentice program.
“We toured around central Vermont in an old Ford truck,” Koren recalled. “Mad River Glen had just started and the Mad River Valley was still agricultural, a traditional farming community. I was smitten with the landscape, the people and all the things around us.”
Koren’s fondness for Vermont endured, ties grew, and with friends in Braintree he kept an eye out for a home here. In the late 1970s he settled in Brookfield where he and his wife Curtis have made their home ever since.
While cartooning is a solitary career, Koren noted that, “Inspiration comes from all manner of sources.” Koren’s curiosity and astute observations feed his work.
“I can never quite believe my luck in stumbling upon riveting mini-dramas taking place within earshot (and eyeshot), a comedy of manners that seems inexhaustible. All kinds of wonderful moments happen right under my nose,” he remarked in his Artist’s Notes for his 2010 retrospective exhibition at Columbia University.
Those moments become more at Koren’s hand.
The New Yorker single-panel cartoons, he noted, “are a kind of theater that ends with a joke. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, but it’s all in a second’s telling. Life goes on for the characters.”
The disconnect between urban expectations of rural life and its realities feature in many of Koren’s cartoons. So do foodies and cars.
“There is befuddlement on one hand that people who don’t live here feel toward what it’s like to be here — there’s a sense of renewal and freedom and isn’t it cute. For those here, it is perceived differently,” Koren said.
With his distinctive hairy creatures and amiable folks, Koren brings his readers to myriad delightful ironies and perspectives. The East Curtis General Store sports a cheery sign “Under new and much pleasanter management.” A shaggy bar patron requests, “Give me a whiskey with a shot of wheatgrass, ginger, beet, and local honey.” A couple sitting by a campfire, phone in hand, ponders, “Who can we call?”
The humor, he noted, is in the shared experience.
“I like to raise more questions than I answer,” Koren said.