Although the saying is ascribed to a number of writers, most sources cite the phrase “good Americans go to Paris when they die” to Oscar Wilde’s Woman of no Importance. For many Americans, particularly the well heeled, Paris might well be considered a kind of heaven; for others, the full irony and uncertainty of the notion of a “good American” might play out.
So what if the saying were true? What if really good — that is, well behaved and nice — Americans ended up in a kind of Parisian heaven? What if a few bad ones got there too, by administrative mistake, and were held in a kind of purgatorial camp until a decision could be made on whether they were good enough to be set free? It’s an odd premise for a book, and few authors would be able to make it work. Howard Waldman manages it. Taking his cue from Beckett and Sartre, Waldman creates a novel that is blatantly absurd, and yet somehow, it not only manages to be entertaining, funny and rich, but also pithy.
There were times, early on, when I thought Good Americans would be a painful novel to read – a kind of indefinite wait, like Waiting for Godot with no resolution -– the ultimate existentialist hell — but it isn’t like that at all. The five stranded characters grow into their circumstances, changing and progressing towards resolution. Among the women, there is the practical, always nice Helen, who survives by attempting to lose herself in whatever book she can find, coupled with deliberate stoicism, and the beautiful Margaret, both tempted and tortured by her returned youth. The men are Seymour the intellectual, Max the truck driver who has never even been to Paris (the ultimate crime), and Louis, the handsome, ascetic Marine. Trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare at the Préfecture de Police, the characters wait to see if death is permanent or if they will be allowed out into the endless springtime of their prime so they can change their bad decisions. Strange and comical as it might seem, Waldman manages to tease out the philosophical implications and complexities amidst the humour, so we end up with a read that is lighthearted and pleasurable on one level – will these characters escape, and where, exactly, are they – heaven, hell, or some kind of purgatory between? While on another level, there are all sorts of subtleties around how we get psychologically stuck in a place; about how we determine good and bad; about the arbitrary power of Bureaucracy over our lives, and even about what constitutes a life worth living/reward and above all, the intensity of nostalgia:
Outside of sleeping and wandering in the maze of corridors, the Five spend most of their time in the Common Room side by side in front of the window. Even in periods of acute intergroup tension, the physical proximity involved doesn’t bother them…Some of the longed-for faces are decades apart. So the spectators are decades apart.
The window is like a TV screen featuring three different channels for selective vision with no need to zap. Anyhow they can’t zap. They’re permanently tuned into Channel 1900 or Channel 1937 or Channel 1951 depending on their Paris sojourn date. It’s like armchair time-travel.
There is also suspense, as the characters work their way through the crumbling prefect, trying to find escape, developing relationships with one another, and playing off their individual terror against nostalgia, and a growing sense of the collective nature of their fate. The omniscient present tense of the book creates a simultaneous tension and ironic distance, so the reader is both drawn into the progression of events, the gathering of clues, and the discoveries and disappointments of the Five, at the same time as they begin to develop suspicions in a state of suspended belief. Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die maintains its consistency as a surreal fantasy, while never losing the realistic grounding in the fate of its characters. Taken metaphorically, the reader can relate to these people and the painful journey they take. The novel draws on everyman’s worst fears, at the same time as it pokes holes in our beliefs. However surreal the story becomes, and however slapstick the humour at the crumbling Préfecture, the novel never strays too far from the believable progression of its characterisation. There is serious pathos in the fate of Gentille, the cleaner, and serious terror in the demands of the Prefect. The setting too is rich with Waldman’s Paris, and the clever way the novel vacillates between the “real” world that the characters sometimes inhabit, and the misty dream world of memory, desire, and imagination:
One dark day a wet gale blows the treees to skeletons. The leaves lie plastered on the walks and tombs. The day after, All Saints’ Day, the rush-hour press of mourners bearing potted briars and chrysanthemums aggregates his sense of isolation and he retires to old graves no one visits.
There’s a spare loveliness to Waldman’s prose, infused as it is with loneliness, humour, and a deep sense of irony in the cyclical prison of our nostalgia for the past. Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die manages a delicate, and all too rare, balancing act between entertainment and introspection.