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Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Novel Look

The author, Paris, 1967
Not many get to see themselves up close and personal in the pages of a novel.
Or, more precisely, who they were -- at twenty.
I did recently.

That view of me, at least, beyond what I saw, or imagined what I saw, more than forty years ago in a bygone looking glass, came in the form of a literary time-machine, a very long novel called French Lessons by popular chicklit-author Peg Craig. At times, the appraisal seems superficial. Also, penetrating. Except, of course, for a violent streak that she attributes to my literary me. Ouch!

I knew Peg Craig, in Paris in 1967. Not well. But evidently she was paying attention. A lot more than I was.

A friend recommended her e-book not long ago, noting that the Kindle-ready, down-loadable text (Amazon.com; $10) was well received when Craig published the book in 2012. Part fiction, part autobiography, the book is all girly-girly, told by a seventeen-year-old narrator who studies in 60s Paris. Gee, Pierre, I wonder how I missed that one.

The book, I discovered, is for the most part humorous, insightful, and well-crafted -- despite its burden as a novel-length cliché. Think Gidget Goes Parisian, and you'll get the idea. Not surprisingly, the plot involves the coming-of-age struggle of the virgin narrator, known here as Meg, the daughter of a high ranking Army general stationed in Germany.(More verisimilitude. Peg's father, I recall, was also a military officer). Fellow student Andrew, a hippy cross between Troy Donahue and Dylan, makes Meg's heart go thumpity-thumpt, despite his unfortunate nickname, 'Ace,' which sounds more like hardware man than surfer dude. (The real-life Andrew was -- and still is -- a good friend. And, yes, he was from Berkeley).

Of course, the reader is invited to wonder about the mysteries of puppy love. Ultimately, as every Romance must posit, the will-she or will-she-not be deflowered theme quickly emerges. And by whom? Hello, Ace, are you ready for your close-up? 

Given its coming-of-age genre, it's almost expected that French Lessons, Craig's debut effort, be a roman à clef. With a very big clef.

I -- or rather the fictional me, alternatively known as 'Ricardo,' 'Ritchie,' and, yes, 'Richard' -- gets a early speaking role. (Let the record show that I was never a 'Ritchie').

For the most part, Craig gets the setting (middle-class bourgeoisie in the 16th) , the milieu (the coterie of Yank students in Paris), and the time (Vietnam-era flower-power rebellion) down to perfection.

As for me, not so much.

How I wound up in Paris in 1967, the first of two years covered in the book, had to do in large part with my parents, who at the time were living in the French capital. Though I had entered in New York University as a freshman the year before, I decided to make the most of my parents' residence by spending a cushy, easy-credit pit-stop at what was then known as the American College in Paris. (Craig calls it Cathedral College. Anyway, both schools were located in an old church building along the Quai d'Orsay).

The story line from then on gets a bit more dicey.

Hear out Meg and her friend Tracy as they give me a once over:

'He's cute. Sort of darkly sexy,' Tracy said.

'Yeah,' Meg said. 'He is. Very polished. A gentleman. But don't let the tie and coat fool you. He can handle a switchblade like a guy from the streets.... He's a complex guy. Smooth, smart, sophisticated, and street savvy.'

Fiction, right?

Well, I am OK with 'cute' and 'sexy.' 

But a 'gentleman'? What, a nerdy, menacing gangsta? And what am I to make of that switchblade. A thug from the hood? Really? And, as Meg notes at one point, even on a full scholarship. (My father would have loved that one).

Even author Craig doesn't want let up. In her narrative voice, she describes me as having longish black hair (try longish brown) and honey-colored skin. (Well, I suppose). But then she quickly segues back to the virgin Meg, who again lapses into what might be considered charitably as Freudian fantasies about Ricardo (just saying, of course) as she muses, as she does with troubling frequency, that he's 'dark and dangerous' and 'even a little scary.'

Here's yet another of Meg's cute, curvaceous, coquettish copines on yours truly:

'He looks like the whole West Side Story thing,' she tells Meg. 'Yeah, I wouldn't piss Richard off. He looks like he's capable of doing some damage.... He's kind of sexy in a scary way. You know, I like that dark, tough street thing. He's got something raw in him -- like Marlon Brando.'

Marlon Brando? I was going to go with No. 1 Shark George Chakiris, even as a poor second. Well, I am of Cuban extraction.

That friend was the flighty 'Maryanne,' who I think was modeled after an actual girlfriend of mine, Felicity. Craig's clef is big. But I'm still not certain how big.

Still, this a scene with the fictional Maryanne has some cred. It appears in Chapter 68. (Well, maybe 67. I lost count. The book has more than 175 chapters. Like, I said, it's long).

Setting: Back seat of Albert's Deux Chevaux. Maryanne (Felicity) sits on Richard's lap. Meg is stuffed beside them. Albert is driving. Ace in front passenger seat, with a guitar (this is the Age of Aquarius, after all) between his legs. The group is en route, I recall, to Sir Winston Churchill's pub for a night out. (Winnie's, near L'Étoile, was our watering hole for Watney's Red Barrel).

'Maryanne did not move from Richard's lap.... Encouraging her, he patted the empty seat between him and Meg. She squirmed, giggled, and cooed.

 "I don't want to, Ritchie. I like it here on your lap."

'The girl didn't need dope to get horny,' Meg thought.

Here's hoping that Felicity -- wherever she might be -- hasn't read that.

And now I'm feeling like a basic jerk.

But not for long.

Soon after, Craig has me conducting, on behalf of fellow students, a tribute to Oscar Wilde at his grave site in Père Lachaise.
'Oscar Wilde died November 30, 1900 at the age of 46,' Ricardo begins his eulogy. 'He despised the wallpaper in his hotel room, and is said to have quipped, as he lay dying, "One of us has to go.""
Never said. Never happened. Never mind. Intellectual is good.

Finally, Craig's world of drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll goes off the rails, portraying Ricardo, in one of the book's most preposterous scenes, as a gen-u-ine hero. I am many things -- but a switchblade-wielding savior is not one of them. Still Craig has Ricardo stepping in, with chivalrous derring-do and bravado, to prevent the rape of another of Meg's blondish foils, the babelicious Dani. 

'There were four young men in the room. One stood in front of Dani trying to spread her legs.'

Somehow, without warning, our hero Ricardo appears.

'Richard's blade was shining in the light. "You want some of this?" Richard said.'

Confronted with Richard's scary, dangerous, street-thing, what could the boys do? Of course, they skedaddle.

Wait! Hold on! Now it's coming back. Thanks Peg. Come to think of it, that was exactly how it went down.