Slayton: Koren's Vermont

Dec 5, 2018

At Bear Pond Books recently, in the midst of what passes for a huge crowd in downtown Montpelier, Ed Koren, the New Yorker cartoonist who has lived in Brookfield for decades, was signing copies of his new collection of cartoons.

He seemed confounded by the crowd that waited in line to have their books signed. “I was stunned,” he said afterwards. “I thought I’d be sitting in the back of the store, doing nothing.”

Instead, Koren signed and drew impromptu sketches in books for more than two hours. For much of that time, the line of his fans stretched the length of the store.

“I never expected this kind of fireworks, at this point in my life,” he said later.

But it’s really not hard to understand: though he likes to call himself a curmudgeon, Koren is a friendly, almost elf-like curmudgeon — who is also a wickedly sharp observer of the human comedy.

Though a native New Yorker, Ed Koren found his way to Vermont as a young artist and stayed because it somehow fit. And Vermont clearly returns his affection, probably because he’s witty and generous. Most notably, he’s been a member of the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department for years.

There’s a strong Vermont element in Koren’s artwork - sending up contemporary Vermont silliness, but in a way that’s subtle, even gentle. In one cartoon a couple stands in front of a sign that proclaims: “Another Beautiful Historic House Waiting to be Restored” and behind the sign rises a pile of rubble. In another, two campers beside a moonlit lakeshore have their cellphones out and one asks: “Who can we call?”

Although his work is often very funny, it provokes wry — not derisive laughter. A horse-drawn manure cart trundles down a dirt road, adorned with bumper stickers for Trinity College, Dartmouth, and Columbia University. In front of a church building sporting a "For Sale" sign, the salesperson declares: “Great for worship then! Great for retail now!”

Ultimately, Koren’s brand of humor unites us in a vision of our own human folly, gently puncturing our self-importance and making us laugh at our unconscious contradictions.

Perhaps that is one reason Vermont has taken him so to heart.