Serious author tries hand at comic soufflŽ
Small-town America through French eyes looks mighty light
Ron Hansen usually writes serious fiction. 'Hitler's Niece,' his 1999 novel, was about Adolf's kinky relationship with his half-sister's daughter, while 'Mariette in Ecstasy' explored the nature of religious fervor through the character of a hot nun.
But after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Hansen decided we could all use some light entertainment, so he wrote 'Isn't It Romantic?' This slender comic novel, subtitled 'An Entertainment,' started life as an original screenplay in the style of the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges. It ended up as a frothy little comedy that goes down in one mouthful.
'I found it's hard (in a screenplay) to develop the characters in the way you need to, so I decided to do it as a novel and flesh out the characters,' Hansen told the Tribune by phone recently from his home in Northern California.
Taking the Rodgers and Hart song 'Isn't It Romantic?' as its motif, the book charts the downs and ups of a young French couple when they're stranded for a few days in Seldom, Neb., population 395.
Nathalie is an U.S.-loving librarian who chooses a bizarre See America bus tour over the usual vacation on the Riviera, where she would bare 'her still-youthful breasts in innocent, unfettered freedom.' Youthful breasts on Page 1, yes, but the rest of the book is strictly PG-13.
Nathalie is pursued by her jealous but noncommittal fiance, Pierre. After their bus breaks down, the townsfolk welcome the couple as the king and queen of the Revels, Seldom's Frenchified county fair.
The locals, however, turn out to be more than yokels.
Diehard Huskers football fan Owen Nelson, who runs the gas station, is an accomplished amateur vintner desperate to find a French distributor for his 'Big Red' Bordeaux. Iona, the bombshell waitress, lives the dumb blonde life but has a knack for the perceptive comment.
By the same token, the snobby French soon adapt. 'Pierre arfed like a seal as Owen had instructed him to, and Owen tossed him a frosty one,' Hansen writes. Likewise, Nathalie dons waitress garb and uncomplainingly serves bad coffee at the local diner to men in caps with seed-company logos.
'One of the fantasies of the book is that the wine of Nebraska is such that it mellows people and lets them forget their inhibitions,' says Hansen, adding that the goodwill of Midwesterners is another civilizing factor.
The quaint character reversal works well in this comedy. One 'boomerang' character, as the author calls them, is the local radical priest, the Rev. Picarazzi, a Brooklynite who looks like Martin Scorsese and leans heavily on Yiddish.
A book, a break
Hansen, who is a professor of the arts and humanities at Santa Clara University, says he imagines the novel's readership will include bus-station book buyers as well as his mother-in-law: 'There are a lot of people who could use a break. I wanted it to be a book you could relax with.'
The author knows his Nebraska, being a native, but instead of doing an Annie Proulx and boring us with landscape rhapsodies, he focuses on people. Nothing is described that is not either part of the humor or part of the plot.
Chapters are short, and the pace is fast: The characters are halfway across the country by Page 19. This gives the book an airy feel and makes it pass more quickly than a Greyhound pee call.
Hansen says the beautiful heroine Nathalie (she of the unfettered freedom) is based partly on women he noticed on a visit to Bordeaux, but mainly on the actress Isabelle Adjani. (Hansen spent three weeks in the wine country after winning the Bordeaux Prize, a literary award organized by an ad company to get American authors to pay more attention to the French wine industry. Who says writers have it tough?)
He admits that the characters are 'recognizable types.' Like many English professors, his idea of comedy centers on bumbling suitors and misunderstandings, and Shakespeare is his muse. Not only do characters have bawdy names like Dick Tupper, but quotes from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' are sprinkled throughout.
The rigors of comedy
Asked how doing comedy differs from his usual work, he laughs.
'Well, nobody is tortured in this book,' he says. 'There's no deep probing of the psychology, and the conflicts are all neatly tied up Ñ that's not the way of serious literary fiction.'
Writing the novel, which took six months, taught him that it's very hard to write comedy. 'Before,' he says, 'I used to be just interested in writing a good sentence. In this, I was trying to write a good sentence that was funny. That is very wearying after a while. It gave me a renewed respect for sitcom writers.'
The book's multiple misunderstandings climax in a scene where lovers roam the halls of a Seldom's women-only boarding house, dodging each other or mistakenly entering rooms. For this, Hansen drew on Michael Frayn's play 'Noises Off' and the farces of French dramatist Georges Feydeau.
'I thought, 'How can I have as many doors slamming as possible?' ' he says.
At its best, this is New Yorker cartoon humor. The language is never very engaging, and we are frog-marched toward a happy ending.
Maybe the terrorists have won after all?