Bay Area author Matt Stewart has turned loose a bright, peppery, infectious, debut novel, The French Revolution, an irreverent literacy farce that entertains for most of its cheerfully eccentric path. It’s fresh, funny, and bright, qualities seldom found in our overly earnest literature, when low-rent genre novels like Twilight are written with earnestness reminiscent of John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill.
Though it alludes indirectly to the traumatic events of 1789, The French Revolution is a contemporary novel and a mock family saga. Its arching tone strongly reminds me of another modern comic classic, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—a picaresque tale populated by broadly drawn characters enraptured by delusions that range from petty to grand. It’s a comedy about family, food, lust, the quest for power and influence and—maybe less successfully—modern San Francisco politics.
Set in a circus-like world of modern San Francisco, the novel follows the history of the Van Twinkle family from 1989 (two hundred years after the titular event) to 2019. Esmerelda Van Twinkle is a brilliant but failed pastry chef who has retreated into the confines of an Upper Market Street copy shop where, garrulous and gargantuan, she rules with efficient iron hand as she balloons to a weight that forcibly attaches her to numerous modes of special transportation, including a walker. Most of her life seems dedicated to keeping her feet off the ground at all times.
Esmerelda seems no man’s idea of a hot romance. But most everyone’s attractive to someone and so Esmerelda’s Special Someone is a lovable, coupon distributor named Jasper Winslow to whom Esmie looks “better than a pecan pie at Thanksgiving dinner.” Jasper’s not just making sport of a fat woman. His sap runs so high that one afternoon, he slips Esmerelda a confectionery mickey and steers her into the blue water bed of a sex club swimming pool where, despite all fleshly obstacles, he leaves her with child.
Two childs to be precise, who pop out precisely on Bastille Day, July 14, in a gas station bathroom, one of many happy grotesqueries that decorate the story. In tribute to this festive historical day, Esmerelda names the girl Robespierre and Marat, after two of the original revolution’s most prominent movers. We follow this new family home to their dictatorial grandmother and, from there, into the wider, ruthless world.
By tying, however remotely, the French Revolution to a family saga of misfits in San Francisco (the Paris of the West), the book seems to be conveying the idea that the same passions that drove that historic event are mirrored everywhere, even in the family dynamics of colorful outsiders. This not the place to argue whether or not this is true. The real pleasure—as in all novels, dramatic and comic—is in the telling and there’s plenty of that here.
However, events do sag somewhat toward the end. A parallel story following the murderous antics of a teenage East Coast sociopath starts out with great promise, but by the time his bloody path crosses the Van Twinkles’, he’s become less interesting and essential to the story. Robespierre’s entry into local politics doesn’t ping true either. U.S. foreign policy misadventures feel shoehorned in here to little effect, I think. The novel, at this point, loses its savvy as it seems to forget an essential truism, one equally ripe for satire—that all politics is local. As a result, the action flags and the novel stumbles to a whirlwindy but somewhat forgettable ending.
Still, Matt Stewart writes in a refreshing, entertaining voice that dances and sings at happily skewed pitch. I'd look forward to more, if I were you.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author.
Thomas Burchfield's original comic screenplay Whackers will make its debut on Scrib'd on July 5, 2011, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you're still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.