Books of Adam

The Blunder Years


By Adam Ellis

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Adam Ellis knew it was time to leave art school when a fellow student presented her final project to the class: “I put a condom on the Virgin Mary,” she announced, unveiling a cheap figurine sheathed in latex. The professor loved it. Baffled by the praise his classmate receives, and intent on becoming an artist on his own terms, Adam plots his escape to Portland, Oregon to begin his life in the real world–only to realize that adulthood is a lot harder than it looks. Based on the blog of the same name, Book of Adam details Adam’s hilarious trials and tribulations in his attempt to become a functioning member of society. From his arrest after shoplifting a bottle of chocolate milk to a misguided attempt to make friends that lands him in a shack with a hippie couple who have just skinned a rabbit and are trying to entice him into a three-some, Adam is an amicable guy who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble. Paired with his signature black and white illustrations, Adam’s stories weave together an uproariously funny and ultimately charming narrative about a young man trying to find his place in the world.


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I wasn't paying attention when Zoe started explaining her project to the class. It was mid-April and the weather was strangely warm for Boston. School was the last thing on my mind, especially since I was set to graduate in a few weeks. The students were gathered in one of the stuffy ground-floor art rooms, fidgety and restless as each person presented their final undertakings. Over the past hour the quality of the work had been steadily declining, since the kids with the most impressive projects had all volunteered to go first. Prior to Zoe, a moody guy with floppy hair covering half his face had discussed his "work": several pieces of dirty cardboard that he'd pinned to the wall.

The signs and his subsequent explanation received a warm enough response from the professor and the class, but by the time he was finished I'd mostly checked out, content instead to stare out the window and watch a bag lady with a single giant dreadlock rummage through a trash can. She's probably looking for her cardboard sign, I thought.

When I'd arrived at college, I couldn't wait to join a community bursting at the seams with artists like myself. But four years in art school had inspired a degree of apathy in me, at least regarding certain facets of the art world. Perhaps I'd simply grown tired of my professors responding so positively to what I deemed to be total bullshit. Several weeks before, a student had spilled paint on a white sheet, then ridden his skateboard back and forth through the mess, and the response from the school's faculty had been alarmingly favorable. I'd overheard one teacher in the hall saying, "This is going to be huge. They'll be knocking down his door after this piece goes public." I didn't know who "they" were, but by that point I'd accepted the possibility that maybe I just didn't have my finger on the pulse of the art world. While I'd always received positive feedback on my own work, my stuff was more illustrative and usually humorous, and even if my professors never said so outright, the general attitude toward illustration and cartooning at my school seemed to be that it was a lesser art. This was disheartening, if not outright insulting, as I'd always taken my work seriously, even when it was silly or absurd.

The kid with the signs unpinned them from the wall, crammed them into his messenger bag, and Zoe was called on to present her final piece for critique. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed her set something on a rickety metal stool. Her explanation was brief and matter-of-fact, and at first I wasn't sure I'd heard her right.

"I put a condom on the Virgin Mary," she said flatly.

Her words took a moment to sink in. I turned my attention toward the front of the room. Sitting on the stool next to Zoe was, in fact, a cheap plastic figurine of the Virgin Mary—the kind you'd find at a dollar store—and it was sheathed in a latex condom. I wasn't sure if she was serious or if it was just a prank. It seemed she'd spent all of forty seconds slapping it together. I glanced at her face for a sign that she was joking, but found none.

Nobody spoke. I assumed it was because everyone was as baffled as I, but I couldn't be sure, as everyone's face held a similarly blank expression. The professor kindly asked Zoe to explain the piece.

"Well, like, it's meant to be a criticism of the Virgin myth and a commentary on the absurdity of divine impregnation." Zoe shifted her weight a bit and cocked her head, as if she didn't quite believe herself. I sort of got the idea, and might've even put some stock in the concept, but what it boiled down to was that Zoe had crammed a tacky figurine into a condom and called it a day. I'd seen this kind of thing a hundred times before. Freshman year, the kid across the hall from me had made a mural out of Cheerios and Froot Loops, and we were all pretty sure he'd forgotten about the project entirely and scrambled to make something from materials in his dorm room in the hour before class. That sort of behavior was understandable for a new student, but this was supposed to be the culmination of a semester's worth of work by a senior. It was supposed to have taken a week to complete at the very least. I expected the professor to tear Zoe a new one for wasting everyone's time, but instead she clutched her chunky stone necklace and gushed about it.

"Tampon in a teacup…" I whispered to myself, though apparently louder than I'd realized, because it caught the attention of the professor.

"Adam, do you have anything you want to add about Zoe's piece?"

"Oh, uh, no," I stammered, "I was just saying, uh… there's this movie, and a girl puts a tampon in a teacup as a commentary about the expectations society places on women, or something. This just, uh, reminded me of that. I guess." The movie I was referring to was Ghost World, and the tampon-in-a-teacup sculpture is meant to be ridiculous and pretentious. I was sure I was about to be outed as the class jerk, but nobody seemed to get the reference.

"It's almost, like, defiant in a way," said one girl, her head tilted thoughtfully at the figurine. Other students murmured in agreement, someone else adding, "Yeah, it's kind of daring." I rolled my eyes. The professor added a few marks in her grade book, and then it was my turn to share. For a moment I considered leaving class and taking a failing grade on the project. My work was far less conceptual, and I feared a backlash. I pinned several paintings to the wall and turned to face the class.

Since Netflix had recently been inexplicably suggesting shows from my childhood, I'd been on a '90s cartoon kick for a few weeks. I had started painting characters from the shows as a sort of warm-up, but then a larger idea had developed. For my final project I'd decided to paint characters from Captain Planet, but in an art nouveau style, in an attempt to juxtapose art in the 1890s with animated media in the 1990s. "Well, I feel that art nouveau has become homogenized and mundane to the point of every dorm room having a reproduction of Tournée du Chat Noir avec Rodolphe Salis, or some reprinted vintage perfume ad," I explained. "So I've taken that notion and drawn parallels with how kids' cartoons in the nineties degraded into little more than half-hour commercials designed to sell toys." I had worked hard and thought my final project was rad, but my professor wasn't so sure. She grilled me about my paintings.

"I wonder about the relevance these works have in the grand scheme of things," she told me. "I think you need time to let your talents gestate. Cartoons might not be the best subject matter for you." She turned back to the class.

She had missed the point of my project. Behind her, through the window, I noticed that the bag lady with the giant dreadlock had taken her boob out and was holding it in one hand while she yelled at a bicycle. I wondered if I was living in a less crazy world than she was. I imagined that if the homeless lady had been standing indoors instead of out, she would have been considered a creative genius by my professor.

As I stood on the subway platform waiting for the Green Line train after class, I tried my best to feel anger about my professor's comments on my artwork, but the truth was I couldn't muster anything. I'd grown jaded, and the complacency I felt scared me. For the first time in years, I was worried about my future, and it wasn't because my professor hadn't responded positively to my paintings. I'd learned years ago to not take critiques personally, and I had no real desire to make a living displaying my work in galleries anyway. But the fact that the skateboard/paint piece and the prophylactic Virgin Mary were considered successes made me question my chosen field. I'd always been hopeful that I could incorporate my creativity into a more standard job–like scenario—Cake decorating! Painting children's faces at the county fair!—but now that I was thinking about it seriously I realized my options as an artist might not be as plentiful as I'd fantasized. For a split second, I toyed with the idea of grad school, but I was weary of being in school and felt eager to embark on a new chapter of my life. I was sick of Boston too, with its subzero winters and Red Sox fans charging the streets with their faces made up in red and white. Up until this point, I hadn't given a lot of thought to what I'd do after college. Most of my friends were staying in Boston or migrating south to New York, and I had planned to do the same, hoping to find a job in one place or the other. But on that platform, I suddenly knew I needed a drastic change of scenery.

That night in my room, I started plotting my escape. I turned to the back of an old geography textbook and scanned over a map of the United States: I wanted to go far away. The West Coast seemed like the logical leap, but where to? Southern California was out (earthquakes!), as was Seattle (I refuse to live in the same city as Sir Mix-a-Lot). I briefly considered Hawaii, but that fantasy faded when I remembered that they have giant cockroaches and none of their Taco Bells are open twenty-four hours, which I personally believe should be classified as a crime against humanity. San Francisco was too expensive, British Columbia was too cold. I wanted to be in a larger city, so the only remaining option was Portland, Oregon—a city that I had never, up until that moment, given a passing thought to. I grabbed my computer and powered it up. When I Googled "Portland, Oregon" pictures of food carts, lush green parks, and crystal blue skies popped up on my screen. They got pretty trees, I mused. I imagined Portland shining like a beacon, beckoning to me from a distant horizon. I pictured myself growing a giant beard and trading in all my existing clothes for soft, comfy flannel. And just like that, I was Portland-bound.


About a week before graduation, I found myself riding the college's shuttle bus, which chartered students to and from the different campuses located in Cambridge and Boston. Usually I refrained from riding the shuttle because it was primarily used by rambunctious freshmen, and riding around with them made me feel like a field trip chaperone. Worse, the shuttle was decrepit and seemed to lack any sort of shock absorbers. It wasn't unusual to see students bouncing a few feet into the air when the vehicle crossed especially rough terrain. On this particular day, I'd just wrapped up a meeting with my adviser and was forced to utilize the shuttle since it was free. Earlier that morning, I'd crammed my backpack into my locker in a hurry, forgetting to grab my wallet before I left for my meeting. I had a habit of procrastinating and scrambling to be on time, and being flustered made me forgetful. Likewise, I'd been so busy trying to tie up loose ends before the close of the school year that I'd forgotten to eat anything all day, and sitting on the shuttle, I realized I was ravenous. I'd gone from being merely hungry to feeling shaky and light-headed in a matter of minutes, and I felt that if I didn't get food in me soon my stomach might start consuming itself. This must have been how Karen Carpenter felt, I thought as I gazed out the window.

I sank into the scratchy, faded fabric of my seat and closed my eyes, imagining crispy, golden chicken nuggets falling from the sky like big deep-fried raindrops. I could almost taste them. I was devising a mental list of food I'd devour when I got to the cafeteria when I heard a loud bang that sounded like a gunshot and felt the shuttle lurch to the right. The driver cursed and quickly parked. He pulled out his cell phone.

"Mi llanta se explotó!" he barked into his phone. I don't speak Spanish, but I didn't need a translator to tell me what explotó meant. We'd obviously blown a tire. A few moments later, the driver hung up and notified the passengers of what we already knew. "Everybody off!" he instructed, motioning for us to exit the vehicle and wait on the sidewalk. We did so, grumbling. "New shuttle soon. Half hour," the driver shouted.

I immediately began to panic. Perhaps my blood sugar was dropping too low and clouding my judgment, but I felt like I didn't have time to wait around for a new shuttle. I needed food. I broke away from the group and made my way down the street, keeping an eye out for a deli or a food cart, or even some discarded takeout in a trash can. In my soft suburban upbringing, I'd never experienced real hunger, and it made me nervous to feel so jittery and dizzy. Fortunately I found a supermarket only a couple of blocks away. In my heightened awareness, the blue-and-yellow neon sign seemed to pulsate with vibrancy, more colorful than I remembered. Once inside and overwhelmed at my food prospects, I wandered through the aisles, searching for something cheap and easily edible—anything that might hold me over until I could get a proper meal. I started taking inventory: Hot Pockets would have to be microwaved, and everything at the deli's hot bar had crusted over under the heat lamps. But there was so much else to choose from. I was starting to feel relief at the plethora of food I saw when it dawned on me: I didn't have my wallet. Even if I chose something to eat, I wouldn't be able to pay for it.

Well, that's it, I thought. This supermarket shall be my final resting place. I found Rome built of brick… I leave her clothed in marble.

Certain death was close at hand, so I considered my options. I thought about my friend Agnes, whose favorite pastime was shoplifting, and how she'd never been caught. In fact I'd watched her blatantly leave clothing stores, her coat bulging with pilfered goods, and nobody had ever lifted a finger to stop her.

I decided that if Agnes had always been so flippant about it and had never suffered any repercussions, I could get away with it too. Something small, I thought, would surely go unnoticed. Who would I be hurting? The giant chain grocery store? They wouldn't miss anything. They probably wouldn't even notice. Besides, it was a life-and-death situation. I walked the aisles a bit longer, searching for the right item.

It didn't take me long to find something suitable.

Chocolate milk! Protein and sugar. Perfect. I lifted a bottle off the shelf and hesitated, unsure of what I was about to do. The only other thing I'd stolen in my life was a couch from the Harvard student lounge, and that was in the middle of the night and under the influence of at least nine beers. This, I figured, would be easier.

The intense hunger I felt acted as its own sort of drug. Almost involuntarily, I reached for the bottle with trembling fingers that hardly seemed like my own. Quietly and discreetly, I sheathed the bottle of chocolate milk in my jacket's front inside pocket. It fit perfectly, as if the jacket were designed for this sole purpose.

As I walked toward the giant exit sign at the front of the store, I felt like there was a spotlight on me. I maneuvered as casually as I could, swinging my arms, hyper-aware of my movements, like a robot learning to walk for the first time.

I made it to the door without detection and was just reaching to push it open when I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. Alarmed, I spun around, and my heart sank. A scruffy-looking guy, short and somewhat disheveled, stood behind me holding a tiny, silver badge.

His badge was smaller than any I'd seen a policeman carry, so I assumed he was just a security guard. For a brief moment I considered making a break for it, but in my weakened state I wouldn't have made it far. I knew I had no alternative but to face the music. My best friend in high school had once gotten out of a trespassing fine by crying, but that wasn't an option for me. (I've only cried twice in my life, and both times occurred while watching Homeward Bound.)

The security guard instructed me to follow him and led me into a tiny back room with a little metal table and a wall of television monitors. Already my mind was racing with thoughts of exorbitant fines and possible jail time. They'll make an example out of me, I thought. I'm headed for the big house. I'll never survive, I'm too soft! Oh God, my eyebrows will grow back together! I envisioned my future incarceration, complete with orange jumpsuit and prison tattoos, my heart sinking lower and lower.


On Sale
Jul 9, 2013
Page Count
256 pages

Adam Ellis

About the Author

Adam Ellis is a 29-year-old artist and blogger and works as an illustrator at BuzzFeed. His first book, Books of Adam: The Blunder Years, was published by Grand Central Publishing in 2013. Originally from Montana, Adam now lives in New York City with his two cats, Maxwell and Pepper.

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