Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Decent Debut

My French Whore, by Gene Wilder, Read by Scott Brick, Books on Tape, Inc., 2007

Gene Wilder is just a cutie, isn’t he? Something about his goofily endearing face just makes me want to pinch his cheeks, no matter that the man is decades older than me. I know he’s had a long and distinguished career in a number of different films and media, but he really nailed it so definitively as Willy Wonka that Willy Wonka he must remain.

And I say this despite his box office hits with Richard Pryor, his incandescent brilliance in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and his history with Mel Brooks. Rhinoceros might just be my favorite thing of all he’s done in the serious realm. And I still want to pinch those cheeks.

Having retired from acting, Wilder has moved on to cancer advocacy and — naturally enough for someone as clever as he clearly is — writing. Kiss Me Like a Stranger, his first book, was a rather short (272 pages of largish font) autobiography that was anything but celebratory. Painfully honest, Wilder’s book probed the darker corners of his life, but not without funny reminisces and a recognition of the good things in life. What is most striking in reading the book is how untainted Wilder seems by success. He seems still like the misfit he started out as rather than turning into a celebrity monster, though he is sure to note the celebrity monsters he’s seen along the way.

Much like that first book, Wilder’s second, the novel My French Whore, is written in a distinct voice that is instantly recognizable as his own. You can practically hear his reedy high voice as the words are delivered, despite the novel being read by old hand Scott Brick.

My French Whore tells the story of Paul Peachy, a small time actor and train conductor married to a woman with no love for him. Depressed by this unromantic life, on the spur of the moment, he enlists in the army near the tail end of World War One. There are few enough novels of this war that could be classified as anything other than elegiac and melancholy and Wilder’s fits the bill perfectly.

As an example of the peculiarly distinct Wilder voice, there is this short dialogue between Peachy and his wife, that nails something rather plaintive and quizzical at the heart of so many of Wilder’s roles, even his more manic ones.

Don't touch me like that.
I don't feel like it.

There's something so plaintively quiet in those single word questioning replies that nothing more needs to be done there, a theatrical economy. The next morning he is at the enlistment office.

Peachy’s German ancestry and ability to speak it comes in handy when the Americans capture what appears to be a German corporal. Peachy is made an acting corporal himself and told to get the man's sympathy and any information he can get regarding the German troops. The man turns out to be the famous German spy, Harry Stroller.

When in his turn, Peachy is later captured by German troops after deserting his own fellow soldiers in battle, he attempts to pull off the impersonation of Stroller, a figure of mystery to German officers. Rarely seen, often working behind enemy lines, Stroller is a famous name only, and Peachy goes about regurgitating the things he gleaned from his short interview with the spy.

Swept up in a world of the upper classes of Germany with good food and champagne, Peachy slides easily into a romance with Annie Breton, a young French prostitute, kept as a plaything by the German officer corps. Brief-lived and idyllic, their relationship starts off rocky but soon progresses to a kind of sweet honesty Peachy was missing with his wife in America.

As the novel progresses, Peachy is forced to assume much of the attributes of Stroller, most importantly, bravery. Forced to confront his initial act of cowardice when his old Army Captain is caught as a prisoner of war, he manages to find a still reserve of courage within himself. The novel’s closing third is a whirlwind of activity as Peachy tries to save those he can, himself included.

Wilder’s novel is not particularly historical in any sense in that there are few period details or era-related touches that would solidly ground the book in the teens of the 20th century. The period does allow for Peachy’s subterfuge to work as long as it does, though the story could have been told of nearly any time and any war. Disillusionment, alienation, small acts of bravery — these are the things Wilder’s novel focuses on. As such, it falls better into character study type of writing.

None of which make the novel less than enjoyable. Great literature? No, not quite, but a compelling short read for when you’re in just that mood. Wilder, like Steve Martin, has proved himself adept at the quirky, slightly melancholy novel that demonstrates the author’s quiet intelligence and essential human decency. Elegiac and satisfying, Wilder’s novel is a modest contribution from a man who, no matter how wacky his characters, always retained that particularly gratifying trait.

Reader Scott Brick doesn’t try to ape Wilder’s vocal inflection or delivery style, but as noted previously, the voice comes through clearly in the narration.

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