- - Friday, May 4, 2012

By Christopher Moore
William Morrow, $26.99, 404 pages

Christopher Moore is a very talented supernatural comic novelist, but he’s maddeningly hit-or-miss. The obvious hits include his first novel, “Practical Demonkeeping”; his life-of-Christ comedy, “Lamb”; the vampiric “Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story”; “Coyote Blue”; “Island of the Sequined Love Nun”; and “The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove.”

Lately, he’s been mostly miss. The planned sequel to “Bloodsucking Fiends” became two books, “You Suck” and “Bite Me,” that had their moments, but only moments. “Fluke” was not really a whale of a tale. “A Dirty Job” gave us a Grim Reaper that we need not fear, or read about. “The Stupidest Angel” was not bad, in first or second editions, but it didn’t try to be much more than a Christmas special mash-up of some of Mr. Moore’s more memorable characters. “Fool,” his take on King Lear, was ambitious but hurried and sloppy. And the less said about last year’s apocalyptic dinosaur-space-invasion graphic novel “The Griff” the better.

So now to Mr. Moore’s lucky 13th novel, “Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art.” Is it any good? The critics seem to be enjoying it. My quick survey of the reviews didn’t turn up a single negative notice. The A.V. Club reviewer called it “undeniably captivating.” The Dallas Morning News critic wrote of the “true joy” readers will derive from the writing. The write-up in The Washington Post noticed that this novel “is different” from Mr. Moore’s usual “zonked-out comic horror*.”

Without even reading a single sentence in this book, you still could see from the way it’s packaged that this time out, Mr. Moore and publisher William Morrow were going for different and way better. From the cover art with half-wraparound to the end pieces (a map of Paris’ monuments) to the way the book is cut (rough, but not too rough) to the fonts to the beautiful full-color reproductions of historical paintings sprinkled throughout the text, this is designed to wow you and say, “I am a literary product. You who would not like to be remembered as Philistines, pay attention.”

In the “prelude,” Mr. Moore writes, “This is a story abut the color blue. It may dodge and weave, hide and deceive, take you down paths of love and history and inspiration, but it’s always about blue.” So, what is blue? “Blue is glory and power, a wave, a particle, a vibration, a resonance, a spirit, a passion, a memory, a vanity, a metaphor, a dream. Blue is a simile. Blue, she is like a woman.” And, as a woman, she is deadly.

The book is really a murder mystery that might have been called “Who Killed Vincent van Gogh?” History tells us that van Gogh killed himself, but Mr. Moore writes in the book’s spirited afterword, “So, Now That You’ve Ruined Art,” “I have stood in that spot [where van Gogh shot himself], and walked from there to the doctor’s house… and I thought, What kind of a painter does that? Who tries to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest, then walks a mile to seek medical attention? It made no sense at all.”

So he decided to tell a story about it and have his say about famous French painters of the late 1800s while he was at it. There are some real insights here, though the A.V. Club critic is right to warn us that this is “historical fiction” only in the ” ‘National Treasure’ sense of the genre.” Historical accuracy usually takes a firm back seat to story and, this being a Christopher Moore novel, that story is not lacking for supernatural elements.

The two “buddies” who try to make heads or pineapples of van Gogh’s death are Lucien Lessard, a baker and aspiring artist, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a lovable lush of a painter “out to bite the ass of the devil before he’s done.”

Lessard is an invention, a lovesick everyman here to introduce us to the world of Parisian artists and plumb the depths of just what a muse means to a man. Lucien’s partner in crime-solving is a historical character, and his presence here is something of an attempted correction.

In his research, Mr. Moore writes, he couldn’t find “in any context … the depressed heartbroken victim portrayed in John Huston’s 1952 film ‘Moulin Rouge.’” He explains, “Henri Toulouse-Lautrec did drink to excess and would die at thirty-six from complications from alcoholism, but it appears that he drank not because he was depressed or self-pitying but because he really liked being drunk.” Mr. Moore supposes it “a minor miracle,” given Toulouse-Lautrec’s “social regimen” that the artist “didn’t die of syphilis.”

A warning label for younger readers: This novel is thoroughly French.

Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Religion and Real Clear Books websites, is writing a book about death.

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