February 21, 2008

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Rowdy in Paris, by Tim Sandlin (2008, Riverhead Books)
By Nathan Grazianoi news@hippopress.com

Few things evoke the macho American’s disdain quite like zee French. What have they ever done for us, other than lending us a few troops and an entire naval fleet a couple of hundred years ago when we were in a tiff with England over our independence — oh, and selling us a statue that is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of our country’s freedom? Who really needs them?

For starters, Rowdy Talbot does.

Rowdy Talbot, the narrator of Tim Sandlin’s latest novel, Rowdy in Paris, is an aging bull-rider from Wyoming who embarks on a mission to retrieve a belt buckle he received for winning a rodeo in Crockett County, Colo. After a strange and slightly implausible ménage a trois with two Parisian beauties he meets at a cowboy bar, Rowdy wakes up to find the belt buckle stolen from his hotel room. With his modest prize money, Rowdy buys a ticket to Paris in search of his buckle, which he planned to give to his estranged son. Once in France, he finds himself entangled with an underground terrorist group trying to prevent American corporate globalization from destroying French culture.

Although the set-up may seem a little bizarre, Sandlin, who has been publishing novels at feverish pace (last year publishing Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty), seems to understand that the conflict stretches the limits of the typical roman á clés, and even has his other characters express disbelief at Rowdy’s reason for being in Paris, suspecting him of working for the CIA. However, what the novel lacks in plausibility is more than made up for with a page-turning plot full of hilarity, bomb-proof satire and a somewhat tender love story.

As Rowdy unwittingly commits just about every cultural faux pas imaginable, strutting around Paris in his cowboy lid and Wrangler jeans like he rode over the Atlantic on a bull, we are able to see our own cultural chauvinisms collide with the French cultural chauvinisms in ways that are both delightfully disarming and simultaneously illuminating.

Rowdy Talbot is a man born and raised in the mold of the American Western tough guy, and it is through Rowdy’s looking glass that Sandlin offers ironic glimpses of our culture. As the bull-rider scoffs at the beret-wearing, clove-smoking pseudo-intellectuals and struggles to find himself a decent cup of coffee (not a caffè espresso) in a culture as foreign to him as the idea of setting his cowboy hat down on its brim, the ironic distance between Rowdy’s voice and Sandlin’s sharp wit shines. While Rowdy is not always likeable, he’s refreshingly genuine and candid, offering up a number of “self-evident truths” as he stumbles upon them. One of the last of these seems to capture Rowdy’s raison d’être: “Love is more important than saving your culture.”

Readers looking for a detailed and laborious look at the sociological differences between American and French cultures should look elsewhere to sate their need. Readers looking for an amusing, sexy and riotous romp through cultural divides can count on Rowdy in Paris to deliver and demystify. A- —Nathan Graziano