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Kirby Gann, Our Napoleon in Rags

Kirby Gann's Our Napoleon in Rags vividly depicts the odd denizens of a down-and-out bar in a scruffy neighborhood in the fictional Kentucky city of Montreux: atheist banker-turned-pornographer Romeo Diaz, mentally unstable janitor and artist Mather Williams, aging bohemian bar owners Glenda and Beau Stiles, rogue cop Chesley Sutherland, and the protagonist, the wonderfully-drawn would-be revolutionary Haycraft Keebler. The group is together every day--or more accruately every night--though they are somewhat dyfunctional and prone to getting on each other's nerves.

The name of the bar, the Don Quixote, says it all--the messianic Keebler is on a quioxtic quest to extend the feeling of goodwill and community which he senses at the bar into the surrounding neighborhood, and ultimately the entire world. Gann rather beautifully captures this hoped-for projection is this early passage:

He stares at the room and then the window, falling deep into the light outside as it grows fine as sand, whirling with red and blue, singing with descending sirens; soon that light filters to black, and the reflection of the bar in the glass stretches narrowly into the leaf-dusted, bottle-strewn boulevard. The illusion of the bar extending into the streets is definitive to Haycraft: All his efforts were focused on bringing the strangely patient camaraderie from inside the building out to spread over the neighborhood, and to bring the people from outside, in.

Capture this picture in a long slow dissolve, these few souls held static in their particular share of solitude. They offer singular visions of companionship to whomever happens along. A picture hesitant through the following hours, expectant, waiting for midnight to arrive like some longed-for music, waiting for each night to be stirred alive.

One problem for Keebler is that he has this bold and highly admirable goal without having any idea how to bring it about. He publishes a ragsheet, The Old Towne Fair Dealer, which is filled with his philosophical rants but has virtually no readership. He causes a bus accident, with no apparent purpose in mind, and only after the fact regrets the possibility of people being injured due to his actions. He organizes a team of street urchins to spray-paint in gold all the junk lying around the neighborhood, which the city hasn't bothered to remove; the city, suddenly aware of the eyesore, finally has the junk cleared away. (This turns out to be Keebler's only successful initiative.) In his final big statement, he has two of his commandos attack Sutherland at the Don Quixote's closing party, spray-painting him in gold, the obvious implication being that the city needs to remove him as well.

But the biggest problem of all is that Keebler's grand mission is based on a faulty premise, for the community of the Don Quixote that he wants to extend to the entire world doesn't actually exist. The only thing holding the bar's denizens together is the bar itself--and when the bar closes, they find themselves having nothing in common, scattering and having little more to do with each other. It's almost as if Keebler wanted the bar's warmth and camaraderie to be real; he is a lonely, lost soul who is searching for soulmates and emotional connection, and the bar's patrons are the best he can find. But because of this false premise, his mission is ultimately doomed.

Blinded by the utter failure of his scheme, Keebler fails to see that he did succeed at changing one person's life for the better, which gives this otherwise bleak novel a sense of hope. Every generation produces only a few exceptional people who are capable of changing the world, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi being two prominent examples. Haycraft Keebler is clearly not in that world-changing stratosphere, nor are most of the rest of us; but the important thing for all of us to remember is that if we can change just one other person's life for the better, then each one of us can make the world a better place, even if only by a tiny increment. And if several million of us do likewise, it all adds up to something truly significant.

It's an important lesson to be learned, and one which Kirby Gann brings across quite convincingly in this marvelous story.

July 26, 2005 in Books | Permalink


Couldn't agree with you more, Pete. I fucking loved this book. Not only was Gann inventive with his narrative arc, but I liked the Dickensian nature of his prose (also there in the afterword) in describing the town and the bar. Gann did something in that book that a lot of authors don't do these days. He dared to profile the culture and the anthropological system of how everyone connected to each other. Plus, his insight into humanity was fantastic. Will definitely be keeping an eye out for future Gann offerings.

Posted by: ed at Jul 29, 2005 1:12:35 PM