Reviewed by Tony Kapolka
Chris Ames’ narrator in An American (Homeless) in Paris (The University of Utah Press, November 2017) instead opts for a part-time, long-term retreat—a tent secreted in an abandoned golf course somewhere in Paris. He’s ill-paid but has an actual job teaching English yet opts to forgo housing expenses. For this, he offers two reasons. To the reader, he leans on Buddhism, “I would live like an outcast monk and embrace the immaterial,” and to police investigating his tent, he admits to “divorce, remorse, sabbatical and return, peace and quiet.” In my reading, I wonder if it isn’t just a case of misanthropy.
In Quebec, my friends and I drink and play cards at night. Here, our hermit drinks, reads by candle light, and channels the world via a battery-powered boom box. Because we drink, we have a rule: the cards read themselves. It doesn’t matter what we think we’re dealt, at the end of the hand everyone looks at the cards. Similarly, I’d rather let his prose sing for itself, and let you decide. In the following passage, he’s entering the Paris branch of the electric utility to meet with a student:
“Regulations required that I present some kind of ID, which one of the women pretended to studiously peruse, though her manicured, star-spangled nails were already reaching for an entrance badge for me to use. And so there I was through security with a nod to the noble Mamadou standing guard.”
I’m not confident that the guard’s name was Mamadou, but the narrator has a tendency to generalize by race: “Their usual trick (the Rom[a])… is to approach you in twos to see if they can pickpocket anything”; “The Chinese like to smoke, smoke, and spit and whenever there was a square inch of floor space available, there the phlegm flew”; “It was a French habit, to go for a stroll and compare one’s self to others”; “Asians love koans”.
Perhaps the Asians got off lightly because by this time he was sleeping with an Asian woman. “And here I thought homelessness was going to keep me whole, wholesome, and chase, hangdog and lonesome. But no, no! Chase my ass; it was more like chased, and I wasn’t even running.” Indeed. Over the course of the book he sleeps with three women.
Misanthrope or not, these three relationships do encourage an emerging sympathy in the reader. The narrator is kinder to those less fortunate that he. Not just people, but even animals. It’s his Buddhist nature. After feeding a rat some spaghetti and then chasing it away, he wonders: “What if it had been an abandoned pet? What if, deep down, it would forever want to be a pet?”
Lest we make too much of this, I’ve left out his juxtapositions of the present with past adventures across Asia. On a train in China, a woman discerning his age declares, “You’re a rat.” He played at homeless then too, reveling in memories of his shelter under a temple bell and sleeping in the palm of a Buddha statue. Perhaps this is how you become an outcast monk. He marvels that Shinto shrines should provide such easy shelter. “After all, the Japanese themselves… seemed scared to death of them, at least at night.” And in the morning, a convenient food offering appears.
Inevitably, at one point Walden is retrieved from the library and he compares his expenditures with Thoreau’s calculation: “I realized that, apart from child support, the passe Navigo, library membership, and the one tent, I had to approximate everything, and couldn’t possibly list everything I had spent. I simply looked at my bank statements from last November through May, and calculated what remained after nearly eight months of living like this. This is an important point that cannot be shrugged off: the fact that I had a bank account in the first place, since a person couldn’t get one without proving he had a place to live… I was a bad boy, living off the remnants of my previous life as an integrated bobo, and keeping my job.”
His list wasn’t nearly complete. He left off his cell phone expense, his lifeline to lover(s), work, and children. He showered at the pool. He visited Laundromats. Where we go fishing, there is no cell service, the shower is the pool, and laundry piles up. I did say cards could read themselves, but I can’t help my certainty that in life, a good week away beats an aimless year with one foot in both worlds.
An American (Homeless) in Paris took first place for nonfiction in the Utah Division of Arts and Museums Original Writing Competition.