Work Title: Cavorting With Strangers: Great Ideas and Their Champions---Paris
Work Author(s): F. Patrick Butler
542 pages, Softcover $19.95
Reviewer: Joe Taylor
"It could just be that we all secretly envy the French people," F. Patrick Butler suggests in the introduction to this spicy buffet of biography, history, cultural critique, and fiction.
Butler proceeds to celebrate the genius of ten great Frenchmen, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose musings on individual freedom inspired both the French and American Revolutions, to Jacques Cousteau, the French seaman/filmmaker who showed that political and ecological freedom must be balanced by responsibility. Butler blends these character sketches into the story of Charly and Jean-Michel and their friends, who engage in passionate shouting matches when not digging up dirt about this "unimpressive lot" of sometimes sleazy French historical figures. The venerable Rousseau, for example, was a sexual exhibitionist who married an illiterate laundry maid after a courtship of twenty-three years. And the great writer and prodigious sexual athlete Victor Hugo spread his seed among many wives, mistresses, chambermaids, and prostitutes, including his daughter's First Communion companion, his son's girlfriend, and his hairdresser's wife. On the day of Hugo's funeral, Butler relates, "the whores of Paris draped their pudenda in black crepe as a mark of respect."
Butler's fictional heroine is Charlene Brooks, a recently-fired American textbook editor. Too much the iconoclast to respect anything French, Charly would rather be working out, or watching Seinfeld reruns, or walking the dog. But she lands a probationary position as a travel guide, and her agency sends her to Paris for training. Her tutor is an alcoholic ex-college professor, Jean-Michel Levasseur, who likes to "find a cafe with tolerable coffee...