As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I went to a book signing at Borders for Gene Wilder's new book, The Woman Who Wouldn't. I eagerly took my signed books home with a goofy grin on my face and set about...not reading either one for a week or two (I was still only midway through a very good Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn, Allegiance, so I had to wait to get started).
I decided to read his first novel before jumping into The Woman Who Wouldn't, despite the fact that the two were completely unrelated stories. And so I did.
I'll be referring to several passages from the book (quite long passages, in most cases) to show why this is such an interesting story and why you would be well-advised to pick up a copy and read it. One of my favorite quotes (and most telling) was actually not from the story at all. It was in the Acknowledgements at the end of the book.
For whatever simplicity of language I've achieved,
I thank my two mentors: Ernest Hemingway and Jean
It's true. The language of the novel is "simple" in construction, but that's not to say it's a book written for idiots. I appreciate authors who don't feel the need to impress you with linguistic gymnastics at least once in ever paragraph. Direct, meaningful, coherent prose is so much more enjoyable to read.
So what about the book itself? With a title containing the word "whore," one might suspect this to be some sort of sex-filled, prurient romp through the debauchery of Hollywood in the 60s-70s, when Gene was King.
Nope. The summary on the jacket notes sums it up pretty well:
World War I has almost come to an end, but for a young Minneapolis railway employee and amateur actor named Paul Peachy, whose marriage has become one-sided, it’s time to enlist. Shipped off to France, Peachy realizes how out of his depth he is — and never more so than when he is captured. Risking everything, Peachy — who as a child of immigrants speaks German — makes the reckless decision to impersonate one of the enemy’s most famous spies.
As the urbane and accomplished spy Harry Stroller, Peachy enters a world he never even knew existed — a world of sumptuous living, world-weary men and available women. But when one of those women — Annie Breton, a young, wary and beautiful courtesan — turns out to be more than she seems, both Peachy’s and Annie’s lives are transformed forever.
As I began the book, Paul Peachy immediately began to remind me of Kurt Vonnegut's creation, Billy Pilgrim (I'd have to dig Slaughterhouse Five out of the boxes in the garage to really compare the two, but I can't be bothered). Here's a little bit of what made Paul Peachy sound Pilgrimesque to me.
Twenty minutes later my heart was in my throat. I heard the stage manager whisper “Go!” and the curtain went up. There was silence for a moment as the audience waited, and then the first line was spoken.
Thank goodness the play went well, and I know the audience liked me because they clapped especially loud when I took my bow during the curtain calls. I looked out into the audience while I was bowing and saw our director sitting in the front row. He gave me a smile and a little nod of approval.
When the play was over I kept my mustache on, which I had purposely made the color of my wife’s auburn hair. I kept trying to picture Elsie when she saw it. Elsie and I had only been married for four and a half years, but the romantic part of our relationship seemed to have faded away, like the yellow roses in our backyard at the end of summer. I lived with Elsie and her mother in three rooms on the second floor of a small but clean house in the German-Polish section of Milwaukee.
On the bus ride home a pretty girl and a soldier were sitting across the aisle from me, holding hands. The girl smiled at me. Without thinking, I touched my mustache and smiled back at her. Her boyfriend turned and gave me a hard stare. I dropped my head, pretending to be reading my theater program.
The relationship with his wife is especially Pilgrim-like. Poor guy.
It's interesting to see the fortitude erupt from the mousey Paul Peachy, when he really needs it.
The seven soldiers raised their rifles.
They pointed their rifles at my chest.
The curtain is up, Paul...the audience is waiting...
I don't know where it came from - I suddenly screamed, in German. "HALT! IDIOTS - PUT DOWN YOUR RIFLES!"
Three of four of the soldiers were confused and lowered their rifles halfway. Pig Head went nearly crazy with rage.
"WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH ALL OF YOU? - SHOOT HIM!"
I started walking, quite calmly, toward the sergeant.
"You - Pig Head - come here!" I said.
Now it was Pig Head who was confused. I shouted at him, "ASSHOLE! COME HERE, QUICKLY!"
Pig Head didn't know what to do. He started stuttering and sputtering. "But, but, what? But..."
"Give me your rifle!" I ordered.
The sergeant looked at the other soldiers, unsure of what he should do. I slapped him twice across the face. In reflex, he quickly handed me his rifle. I screamed at him, "Is this what you do when you capture an enemy soldier? No interrogation? Division?... Battalion?... Company?... Officers?.... To what rank? Tanks? How many? Artillery Support? Cavalry? Is this what we've been teaching you? To capture a prisoner and shoot him, without one word coming out of HIS mouth? You are a disgrace to Germany!"
The sergeant was dumbfounded. His mouth hung open, but nothing came out.
I turned to one of the other soldiers. "You, Corporal! - You're in command. Now take me to your company commander, and for Christ's sake - LET ME SEE A GERMAN SOLDIER!"
After the corporal gave a command, I walked behind them as they all marched away, with Pig Head trailing behind, bewildered.
Commanding, self-assured, and quick-thinking. Not like Billy Pilgrim at all...on the surface. To appearances, he's a closer match to James Bond, but underneath it all, he's still a wreck.
Later, he meets Annie, the book's namesake, and you see some of his anxieties leaking through.
"Tell me the truth - I'm your friend - would you like to be with a woman tonight?"
I felt like a fool. I didn't know what to answer.
"Forgive me, Harry," Steinig said, "I would not exactly win a prize for tact. of course you would. It's probably been a long time for you. May I make the selection? I've lived with your reputation for so long that I think I know even your taste in women." He looked across the room, searching for someone. "Her name is Annie Breton, and she is standing...there!"
He pointed to a small brunette, quite thin, who was wearing a red-and-blue gown that seemed out of place somehow next to all of the elegant gowns around her. She looked to be about twenty-seven or twenty-eight. I couldn't tell if she was pretty because she was wearing so much makeup that it made her look cheap, but her small body was attractive. She was talking with a young officer.
"Annie is French, Harry. She has great class...and she's a pig. That's a nice combination, don't you think? If you're disappointed, tell me tomorrow and you can pick any bottle you like from my cellar."
"But she's with someone," I said, hoping for relief.
"Oh, pooh! He's a captain; you're a colonel. She'll like you more. You go over and get something to eat while I make the arrangements. Try some of those Napoleons - they're delicious."
As Steinig walked away I went directly to the pastry table and looked at all the beautiful cakes and tortes and, of course, the Cremschnitten. I picked one up and took a bite...it was delicious. Much more delicate that the "Napoleons" we had in Milwaukee.
I was so absorbed with my Cremschnitten that I didn't realize someone was talking to me.
"Harry Stroller?" the voice repeated. I turned to see that it was the little brunette with all the makeup who was talking to me. She was smiling.
"Don't you know your own name?" she asked. She spoke in English with a slight French accent.
"I'm sorry..I forget sometimes."
"Maybe you should tie a string around your finger," she said.
"What if I forget to look at my finger?"
"Would you like me to stand next to you all the time, just in case?" she asked.
"It might look a little funny."
"Then why don't we dance?" she said. "That way, no one will notice."
She had a sense of humor - thank goodness. I smiled, wiped the whipped cream off my face and hands, and led her into the waltz that the string quartet was playing. My mother had taught me how to dance the waltz, so I was comfortable, at least for now.
As we danced, I caught Colonel Steinig's eye. He smiled and nodded a sign of approval. that was how I met Annie Breton.
"But surely a book about a French Whore must have some sex," you wail.
Of course it does. It's not exacly "graphic," but it's about what you'd expect for a wreck like Paul Peachy.
A romantic French song began to play as Maria put the needle onto the phonograph record that was already in place. Then she turned down the bed and left the room. After a few moments, Annie came out, dressed - or I should say, almost undressed - in a very sheer lavender negligee.
"Would you pour us some Champagne, Harry?" I was more than a little nervous as I poured two glasses of Champagne. Annie took off her negligee, exposing her bare bosom. She had small breasts, which relieved me somehow. I know it sounds silly, but I always found small breasts more erotic whenever I saw young women talking together on the train, even though they were fully clothed. I told my "small breast theory" to Murdock once, when he was eating lunch, and he laughed so hard he nearly choked.
Annie sat at the edge of her bed and crossed her legs, wearing only her white panties. I'd say it was a sexy pose except for all of her garish makeup, which dampened my sexual impulses. It made her look like the whores I used to see walking on Fondualc Avenue in Milwaukee, with lips covered with so much lipstick that you couldn't tell what they really looked like, and with blue eyelids, fake rosy cheeks, and eyelashes loaded with mascara. Annie's naked body was very small and I think attractive, but her nakedness made her makeup seem that much uglier to me. The strong perfume she must have doused herself with in the bathroom make ne feel slightly ill. I had a strong inclination to just walk out. And yet...
"What shall we drink to, Monsieur Harry?" she asked.
"The Kaiser," I said, stalling for time.
"Oh, you - let's drink to us!"
We clicked glasses and I took a sip of Champagne. Then she stood up and kissed me tenderly, on both cheeks, as her tiny breasts pressed lightly against my shirt. She slipped off her panties and sat back down on the bed. Elsie was the only other woman I had ever seen completely naked, and then only after she turned the lamps way down.
"Harry, I don't know if you're trying to look at me or trying not to look at me," she said, half smiling but with a puzzled look.
"Both," I said.
"Why don't you come closer and let me help you with your clothes?"
I stood still, looking at her beautiful body. It was so smooth it reminded me of the alabaster figurines I used to see at the museum in Milwaukee.
"Don't you want to make love to me?" he asked, almost like a little girl.
"Yes, I do."
"Its not that you like boys, is it?" she asked, suddenly quite serious.
"No, nothing like that. Would you take your makeup off?" I asked.
She seemed a little startled.
"Why?" she asked.
"So I can see your face."
"I'd rather not," she said. "My face is very ordinary. Anyway, what's wrong with my face the way it is? No one has ever complained."
"It makes you look like a whore," I said, regretting how terrible it sounded when it came out of my mouth, but that's how I felt.
Peachy reminds me a little of Holden Caulfield in the prostitute scene of Catcher in the Rye and also of Mersault in his discussion of marriage with Marie in The Stranger. Mersault, like Peachy, is also inclined to say exaclty what's on his mind, regardless of the other person's opinion. That's an honesty that's hard to find in one's own self, but probably even harder to endure in a friend. And Holden was just as reluctant to despoil his prostitute (for different reasons, ostensibly) as Peachy is.
When I finished My French Whore, I was really looking forward to jumping into Gene's next novel, but I decided to try another author I had never read (on the advice of Ms. Clack, my Eighth grade English teacher): Steve Martin. So I picked up Shopgirl and read it instead. And then I decided to mix things up a little, so I'm now three hundred pages into a collection of short stories, Legends II. One of the stories is from George RR Martin's excellent Ice & Fire universe and I think there's a Neil Gaiman in there somewhere. But I digress...
My French Whore is one of those books that may get you to look at yourself and people around you a little differently. I think there's a little Paul Peachy or Billy Pilgrim in all of us. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The fish tank has been doing some neat stuff lately, so I may get around to showing some photos of how cool it is becoming in a day or two. Oh, the missing shrimp has also mysteriously re-appeared! Woo-hoo!