James Earle McCracken
Reviewed by Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson for Reader Views (7/08)
Let me start this review by saying that I certainly read a lot. Between my reading for work and reading for pleasure, I probably average at least 150 books a year. And since I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve read a few good books by now. I do not find it surprising that nowadays I often feel I’ve read a variation of what I am currently reading before. Granted, all authors are at least somewhat influenced by the work of others, but all too often the similarities are too great to overlook. So it has been quite a while since I’ve read a book and thought, “Wow, this was truly different and truly refreshing…”
Well, this past weekend has been one of those “wow” moments. After having read the first couple of chapters of James Earle McCracken’s Rue de la Pompe, I had to put it down and ask myself where the author was going with his story. After a few more, I was no closer to being able to categorize the book, but I was sure having a good time. Having finished it, I still would be extremely hard pressed to describe it with any accuracy, but I feel like I would after an exhilarating day at an outstanding amusement park. It was wild; it was unpredictable; it was mad-cap and scary at times; but always witty, picturesque and never boring.
The story is deceptively simple. A thirty-year-old American living in Paris, Michael Whyte, receives a mysterious gift of formal wear and an invitation to a party on his birthday. This sets him on an epic quest for the very first French franc coin. It is the author’s truly unique approach to telling the story—through the inner voices of Michael’s different personalities (Mr. Whyte, Mikey, Smart Ass, Dumb Ass and Jackass)—and the fantastic use of the locale, Paris, which set this story apart in the best possible way. I do not know of another author who would dare to describe Paris as “On the good days, the city struck Michael as a beautiful woman who wasn’t his type; the rest of the time, Paris was a bad summer camp with weird counselors and lousy toilets.” When you add to this a cast of extremely quirky characters (a Zen-master quote-spouting jeweler, a Castilian “compact assassin,” a helpful deaf-mute, a farting statue of Benjamin Franklin, a joke-telling rhinoceros, a Doberman-like concierge, an epistemologist, an enigmatic beauty who speaks all of the languages, a couple of villains, as well as a few other more or less lunatic characters), you should not be surprised when the book turns out to be a cross between a roller-coaster, an abduction by a flying saucer, a carousel, the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted House located in the Hall of Mirrors and completed with a few side shows.
The author manages to poke fun at pretty much everything and everybody, but he does so in a highly entertaining and intelligent way. Nobody and nothing get spared, be it the pacifistic Dutch, the Japanese tour groups, over-the-top menus filled with pretentious ingredients and complicated dishes, cheese-discussing French alligators or the sex life of elephants… I’ve enjoyed his highly individual writing style, the unorthodox story and the unbelievably peculiar set of characters immensely. A great book to brighten an otherwise uninspiring weekend, a tedious trip or a wait in a doctor’s office somewhere, “Rue de la Pompe,” by James Earle McCracken, is certainly by far the most original work I’ve read lately and I do hope the author will keep his promise about the upcoming book two.