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Merde Happens

by Stephen Clarke

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Merde Happens
Bloomsbury, 2008

We first met the peripatetic Paul West when his British boss sent him to Paris in 2002. The result of his time in Paris was A Year in the Merde, a self-published book that became a huge success. It was followed by In the Merde For Love and Talk to the Snail, an attempt to understand the French. Merde Happens is the next in the series, and we see that it is beginning to happen as early as the second paragraph. Although Clarke uses an epigraph from de Tocqueville, this is not his tour of America!

Paul has opened a successful tearoom in Paris in partnership with his former girlfriend's (Elodie) father. All is well until he runs afoul of the compulsive desire of the French to keep their language pure and unadulterated. A visit from a language inspector in the Ministry of Culture, "a power-mad bureaucrat who refused to believe that even the most linguistically challenged Parisian could understand SAUSAGE when the label was standing in front of a plate of long, meat-filled tubes," results in a fine so large that he is in danger of losing his tearoom.

Paul has to earn money fast. He gets a job with Visitor Resources: Britain, but only after he sings the British anthem to prove himself. He is to travel around the United States and pimp the locals to travel to Great Britain. The trip is part of a contest with other countries; if he wins, his bonus will be large enough to take care of the fine with plenty left over. Simple enough? No. Somehow, the spirit of Monty Python and Benny Hill gets in the way and stays with Paul through his misadventures in the States.
The problems start with his interview. Another person mistakes him for a model and photographs him in a mini-kilt. These pictures end up on a gay website and pursue him throughout his trip. Ironically, they actually grease the skids for him in a number of ways.

Paul's account is replete with small jokes. At the end of a meal, Elodie speaks to the waiter: "'Check?' she said. I half expected him to answer, 'No, Mexican actually, but thanks for asking.'" His friend Jake, whom we are to encounter again and again, has trouble with French pronunciation, which leads to more little jokes. Jake is an aspiring, but bad, poet and talks of "posy" pronounced as the word for flowers, not the French poésie, poetry. Or, when speaking of almonds, he uses amende, when means "fine." Occasionally, Jake gets it right as when he uses attraper, meaning "to catch." Paul gives us the necessary information to enable the reader to enjoy nearly all of the jokes. Even a cursory study of high school French will fill the bill.
Paul and his new girlfriend, Alexa, embark. A photographer, she is along because she wants to create a documentary about America. The problem is that Visitor Resources: Britain is worse than a fly-by-the-seat-of-one's-pants business. Just about everything has been outsourced to India. Think of all those calls to ask a question about how your computer is working and you get the picture. Serena in London is really Soraya in Chennai: "You know, the new name for Madras." She's competent and caring, but the home office has not always given her the information she needs in order to help Paul. And, she has issues with her father which center on the loan of a scooter by a male friend. Or, consider the Miami experience. The British tourist group "wanted some Scottish dancing in Florida, so they got a firm in India to organize it via a Cuban guy called Jesus who spent his days ogling women from a café terrace."

Paul gets so much right about America. Interstate 95, for example, is "the most soporific road in the world." Those who travel it know exactly what he means. His ear for the accent of a Southern couple in Boca Raton is perfect. His over the top characterization of the Latin Lover, in the person of Jesus Rodriquez in Miami, is hilarious. He and Alexa are nearly carjacked by two young toughs who want the car because of its fuel efficiency. When they are rescued by a "hobbit" of Minis the criminals escape in their monster SUV.
Miami's waterside homes get the jab of Clarke's pen. These mansions always have space for a yacht and powerboat, and huge picture windows. "And these supposed dream houses looked out onto a smoke-belching line of moored cruise ships…(and beyond) was a container port, which was colorful - a sort of 3-D Mondrian painting - but surely not worth spending millions to look at."

Paul and Alexa split. Paul goes to Las Vegas where he is treated like a star. As in New Orleans, he appears here and there in his kilt advertising a variety of things or places. Jake and his girlfriend Juliana bring the Mini to Vegas. Alexa returns momentarily before the circus gets to Los Angeles. There are a number of twists to the story, all of which contribute to the general sense of unreality and hilarity. Ultimately, the tangled web is revealed to Paul so that all's well that ends well.

Stephen Clarke has lived in France twelve years and has become a keen observer of the cultural idiosyncrasies that divide the French among themselves and from the rest of us. His commentary convinces that one cannot become French; one is either born French or not.

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