Guy Delisle is best known for his brilliant, offbeat travelogues (Burma Chronicles, Pyongyang, Jerusalem) and, more recently, for Hostage, his extraordinary account of the kidnapping of Christophe André of Médecins Sans Frontières in Ingushetia in the north Caucasus in 1997. Outwardly, then, his new book, Factory Summers, looks like a dramatic change of pace. A memoir of the time he spent working the night shift in a Quebec City paper mill as a student almost 40 years ago, it could not be less exotic if it tried. But even in this comic, the author appears before us in the guise we now know so well – a baffled outsider trying, and often failing, to navigate a culture that isn’t his own. This time, however, the alien land is on his doorstep and he’s already fluent in its language.
The mill, which manufactures the paper used by, among others, the New York Times, is a huge, old-fashioned place. Built in 1927, its elaborate deco chimneys, constantly spewing white clouds into the sky, can be seen from nearly every part of the city and even when they can’t, sulphurous fumes still somehow reach the nose. But it’s a place that is outmoded sociologically, too. A universally male realm, the blue-collar workers on the factory floor never mix with the engineers and other bosses upstairs, whose privilege they loudly resent, in spite of the fact that their conditions have been agreed by their union. Nor do they know quite what to make of Delisle, this callow youth for whom the mill is just a staging post on the way to somewhere else and whose stated passion is neither for sport nor girls, but for his seemingly useless hobby, which is “drawing”.
These tensions play a vital role in the scheme of Factory Summers and Delisle examines them without embarrassment. But the book isn’t really about social class so much as it is about men and their agonising inability to talk to one another. If his co-workers communicate via sexist banter – they’re never more furious with Delisle than when, one night, he fails to alert them to the naked women who are appearing on the TV in the room in which they take their breaks – their inarticulacy is no more painfully inadequate than that of his father, who, unknown to them, happens to be among the tie-wearers upstairs. Delisle’s parents divorced when he was young and he visits his father only once a year now. In the mill, he doesn’t even know where his dad’s office is. When he sees him on the factory floor, a tiny figure spotted at a distance among the mills’ hulking machinery, like a deer wandering between tall trees, he might as well be a stranger.
It’s this plangent undertow that makes Factory Summers worth your time. We all know about summer jobs. Many of us have experienced the borderline bullying that comes with a certain kind of envy and fear. But the emotionally silent world of men is more difficult territory to reach and it finds its perfect expression here in Delisle’s effortless concision: so much paralysing gaucheness in a beer belly, a pair of bandy legs, a head bent over a homemade sandwich; so much sadness in a single glance.
• Factory Summers by Guy Delisle is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£17.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply