- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2008


By Tim Sandlin

Riverhead, $24.95, 288 pages


Tim Sandlin must be the king of taking ridiculous plot ideas and turning them into amusing, readable books with serious undertones. In last year’s “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty,” he told the tale of a nursing home taken over by aging Sixties radicals, touching on themes of death and elder care along the way. And with the new “Rowdy in Paris,” he sends an American cowboy with a hair-trigger temper to France, mixing culture-clash jokes with important questions about fatherhood and globalization.

Rowdy Talbot is a bull rider, but not a particularly successful one. As the story commences he’s been on the circuit for years, but he’s never won a rodeo. He’s been married to and divorced from the same woman three times, and she’s doing her best to turn their son against him. Thanks to his occupation’s hazards, metal pins hold various parts of his frame together, and by his own calculation, it’s all downhill from there.

Then he wins a rodeo in Colorado. The victory costs him a few more injuries, but he gets a nice chunk of prize money and a championship belt buckle. He’s under no illusion of rising to the top of the pack, but at last he’s tasted true success.

Celebrating afterwards at a bar, Rowdy meets two French university students. The good news for him is that they find the cowboy aesthetic fascinating. The bad news is that before leaving for home, they make off with his belt buckle as a souvenir.

In a rush of cowboy pride, Rowdy hops a plane to Paris, where he slowly discovers that Odette and Giselle are members of an anti-American insurgent group that attacks U.S. food chains. They and their comrades figure that if they can inflict enough damage on McDonald’s, Starbucks might not open. It’s hard to believe Rowdy that he would follow them all the way to Paris for a belt buckle, so they suspect he’s some sort of agent with the U.S. government or one of the chains.

Much hilarity, along with much comic violence, ensues. There is low humor and sex gags, but many of the jokes take the narrative to a more sophisticated level. Rowdy and Giselle converse for a bit about William James — until they realize she’s speaking of the “philosopher and psychologist, who lectured at your Harvard at the dawn of the twentieth century,” while Rowdy’s talking about the author of “Smoky the Cow Horse.”

At another point, a cab driver from America says to Rowdy, “Everyone takes advantage of the expatriate.” The bull rider responds, “I don’t much care what you used to be.”

Even with so many laughs at Rowdy’s expense, he is far more than a one-dimensional cowboy stitched from Hollywood portrayals. Rowdy writes poetry, makes fun of homophobes (quite effectively in one scene) and abhors smoking.

And with Mr. Sandlin’s help, no French snub goes unpunished. When people avoid helping Rowdy by pretending not to know English a fellow American observes, “A Frenchman justifies his rudeness by saying you were rude first.” After a time Rowdy finds that some in the city are kind to him, and he and Odette even start to fall in love.

In the book, Mr. Sandlin also manages to explore, in some depth, the perils of hyper-masculine parenting. For all his swagger, Rowdy himself seems sincere in wanting a good relationship with his son (it turns out he needs to retrieve the buckle so he can give it to Tyson), though he has no idea how to do so and balks at investing the necessary time.

Part of this can be explained by Rowdy’s relationship with his own father. Rowdy says, “To tell the truth, I don’t recall ever seeing him touch a human being … My theory is being a male in Wyoming had turned him emotionally catatonic.” And, “Dad’s take, before he died, was The kid is useless and always will be but I am a man who does his duty therefore I love him but you’ll never hear me say it. I think. Since he never said it, I’m taking the last part on faith.”

This is heartrending territory and it serves the novel well. Rowdy’s recollection of various examples of his father’s tough love opens a window on the trauma that stunts Rowdy’s ability to perform a father’s duties himself.

Throughout the book, Mr. Sandlin is generous with his wry observations about world events, globalization and national pride. Are U.S. corporations in France a good thing? Mr. Sandlin doesn’t say, but as “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty” satirized hippies without judging their views, “Rowdy in Paris” pokes fun at a group of arrogant French kids who disdain their own countrymen — particularly those who partake of American burgers and coffee. Rowdy suggests to Odette, “Only way to drive them out is if nobody eats there,” to which she responds, “If we leave it to the common man, there will soon be no French culture.”

It would be cruel to reveal whether Rowdy succeeds in foiling the anti-McDonald’s plot. But in real life, the author reassures us at the end, “The first Starbucks in Paris opened its doors on Friday, January 16, 2004. By the next Monday, there were two. As of the end of the year, ten Starbucks stores were up and running in the city of light. All are successful and all opened without incident.”

Robert VerBruggen (https://robertsrationale.blogspot.com) is an associate editor at National Review.

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