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Gorgeous East: A Novel

Gorgeous East: A Novel

by Robert Girardi
     
 

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A sweeping tale of love and redemption, honor and war, Robert Girardi’s Gorgeous East follows three French For eign legionnaires of very different backgrounds from the cliffs of Mont Saint-Michel to Istanbul’s ancient alley ways, from raucous Parisian bars to the desolate Sahara. Gorgeous East takes us on an epic and unfor get table ad ven

Overview

A sweeping tale of love and redemption, honor and war, Robert Girardi’s Gorgeous East follows three French For eign legionnaires of very different backgrounds from the cliffs of Mont Saint-Michel to Istanbul’s ancient alley ways, from raucous Parisian bars to the desolate Sahara. Gorgeous East takes us on an epic and unfor get table ad ven ture with the wonderful John Smith, a lost Brooklynite they call the Handsome American Cowboy; Colonel de Noyer, the elder statesman slowly going mad; and Cap tain Pinard, whose past is so hideous he can’t find love outside the Legion’s walls. When a mission in the Sahara goes horribly wrong, one legionnaire must wage battle against a rogue terrorist group and rescue his brothers-in-arms. In this tremendous return to form, Girardi show cases his sheer love of language and lumi n ous sense of place to deliver a masterful novel of the hearts and minds of soldiers of fortune.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Gorgeous East:

“The French foreign legion is the stuff of literary and Hollywood legend: an army of the desperate and depraved, who may redeem themselves through service to France—or die in some hellish place, outnumbered, outgunned, unknown, unmourned. Gorgeous East seems a homage to now-dated adventure yarns like Beau Geste, but Girardi, tongue gleefully in cheek, points out that the legion abides, and he sets three contemporary legionnaires down in the middle of what may be the world’s least-known, four-decades-old war, in Western Sahara. Colonel Phillipe de Noyer is a French nobleman with a passion for Eric Satie and a patrimony that ensures he will go mad. Lieutenant Evariste Pinard is a French Canadian former thug who finds a home in the legion. American John Smith is a failed musical comedy actor whose life bottoms out in Istanbul when the woman he loved, and sought to reclaim, is murdered. He joins simply to punish himself. These characters and a host of others, including the legion itself, are quirky yet lovingly drawn. Girardi’s depictions of Paris, Mont-Saint-Michel, Istanbul, and Western Sahara are rich with imagery, smells and sounds. His prose is, by turns, fluid, exuberant, cynical, fascinatingly discursive, and happily over-the-top. Gorgeous East surprises, delights, and rewards.’ –Booklist [STARRED REVIEW]

“Equal parts update of Beau Geste and gonzo parody, Girardi’s latest novel is his first American publication in ten years. It’s the tale of three French Foreign Legionnaires: de Noyer, an aristocratic, Satie-worshipping French officer suffering from insomnia and genetic insanity; Pinard, a French-Canadian noncom with an oboe and an ugly past; and John Smith (his real name, not the alias chosen by many comrades), a failed American musical comedian just becoming aware of his life’s vapidity. All three adore Sophie, de Noyer’s bright but suicidal wife. And all three are forced into battle with Al Bab, the imam of a new sect destabilizing the dreary war between Morocco and the Saharoui Arab Democratic Republic. Despite odd moments when thoughts and actions are ascribed to soldier characters that seem more appropriate to the writer, this work delivers vivid characters and wi ld adventure while skewering both Western powers and Islamic terrorists. VERDICT: “Fans of political commentary or violent dark humor will find much to enjoy….” – Library Journal

“[A]n entertaining 21st-century variant on the classic adventure tale. Characterizations are brisk and vivid, as the story whips along toward a violent climax with a nice surprise twist…. Girardi pits the French Foreign Legion against Muslim fanatics. Since Louis Philippe founded the Legion in 1831, its lost-soul volunteers fight in the most desolate corners of the globe mostly because they have nothing better to do with their lives. American musical comedy actor John Smith winds up in the Legion after a disastrous trip to Istanbul that results in the murder of the girlfriend who jilted him for a wealthy Turk. Sous-lieutenant Evariste Pinard, a French Canadian drug dealer and enforcer for a Russian loan shark in France, chose the Legion over prison and deportation. And they’re two of the more savory recruits in Girardi’s nastily realistic rogues’ gallery. Yet it’s such an honor to whip lost souls like these into military shape that only the best of France’s aristocratic officer class, like Colonel Philippe de Noyer, are deemed worthy to serve in the Legion. Unfortunately, Noyer is also possessed of a hereditary tendency toward madness, sparked in his case by a particularly ugly encounter with a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency in the Western Sahara. The creepy Marabouts, who decapitate their enemies and initiate members with bee stings, are mostly an excuse for lots of action sequences featuring vastly outnumbered Legionnaires grimly holding strongholds soon to be overrun by bloodthirsty savages, or charging into hordes of similar savages crying “à moi la Legion!”–Kirkus

More Praise for Robert Girardi:

“A skillful stylist who tells his story with rapid ease.” –The Washington Post

“An author of substantial gifts…remarkable descriptive ability, subtle humor, and an uncanny ability to create tactile and luminous sense of place.” –Detroit Free Press

“A spellbinding storyteller.” –Daily Mail (UK)

“A remarkable achievement…part love story, part ghost story, always absorbing.” – Los Angeles Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly

A well-researched tale of the modern French Foreign Legion, Girardi's first novel in seven years (after The Wrong Doyle) is a major disappointment that, marred by purple prose ("The pain... blotted out everything-courage, honor, love-and he lay on the sandy ground in the grips of this blackness, moaning weakly") and undermined at key points by parody, fails on every level. The plot centers on three legionnaires: Phillipe de Noyer, an aristocratic officer; Evariste Pinard, a reformed Quebecois thug; and John Smith, an American musical theater actor who joins the legion after his selfishness leads to the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The three men become involved in the legion's battle against an uprising in the western Sahara led by Al-Bab, a portly false prophet. After an attack on one of the legion's desert forts, de Noyer and Smith become Al-Bab's prisoners, and Pinard is dispatched to rescue them. But by the time Al-Bab's actual identity is revealed (a sequence that is, simply, silly-the vital clue is a box of Cap'n Crunch cereal) and the prisoners are rescued, all but the most masochistic readers will have put this down. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Equal parts update of Beau Geste and gonzo parody, Girardi's (A Vaudeville of Devils) latest novel is his first American publication in ten years. It's the tale of three French Foreign Legionnaires: de Noyer, an aristocratic, Satie-worshipping French officer suffering from insomnia and genetic insanity; Pinard, a French-Canadian noncom with an oboe and an ugly past; and John Smith (his real name, not the alias chosen by many comrades), a failed American musical comedian just becoming aware of his life's vapidity. All three adore Sophie, de Noyer's bright but suicidal wife. And all three are forced into battle with Al Bab, the imam of a new sect destabilizing the dreary war between Morocco and the Saharoui Arab Democratic Republic. Despite odd moments when thoughts and actions are ascribed to soldier characters that seem more appropriate to the writer, this work delivers vivid characters and wild adventure while skewering both Western powers and Islamic terrorists. VERDICT Fans of political commentary or violent dark humor will find much to enjoy, but others may take offense or just not get it. [Library marketing campaign.]—Neil Hollands, Williamsburg Regional Lib., VA
Kirkus Reviews
Girardi (The Wrong Doyle, 2004, etc.) pits the French Foreign Legion against Muslim fanatics. Since Louis Philippe founded the Legion in 1831, its lost-soul volunteers fight in the most desolate corners of the globe mostly because they have nothing better to do with their lives. American musical comedy actor John Smith winds up in the Legion after a disastrous trip to Istanbul that results in the murder of the girlfriend who jilted him for a wealthy Turk. Sous-lieutenant Evariste Pinard, a French Canadian drug dealer and enforcer for a Russian loan shark in France, chose the Legion over prison and deportation. And they're two of the more savory recruits in Girardi's nastily realistic rogues' gallery. Yet it's such an honor to whip lost souls like these into military shape that only the best of France's aristocratic officer class, like Colonel Philippe de Noyer, are deemed worthy to serve in the Legion. Unfortunately, Noyer is also possessed of a hereditary tendency toward madness, sparked in his case by a particularly ugly encounter with a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency in the Western Sahara. The creepy Marabouts, who decapitate their enemies and initiate members with bee stings, are mostly an excuse for lots of action sequences featuring vastly outnumbered Legionnaires grimly holding strongholds soon to be overrun by bloodthirsty savages, or charging into hordes of similar savages crying "a moi la Legion!" This genre hasn't changed much since Beau Geste, and Girardi is content to stick to the formula of men with dark pasts loyal only to each other, "or else what were they but a bunch of murderers?" Characterizations are brisk and vivid, as the story whips along toward a violent climaxwith a nice surprise twist, followed by one Legionnaire's predictable decision to forsake the chance of love and a fresh start for more brutalization by the military. Nothing new here, but an entertaining 21st-century variant on the classic adventure tale.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312565862
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
10/13/2009
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Gorgeous East


By Robert Girardi

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Robert Girardi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8659-5



CHAPTER 1

SARABANDE FOR A SUICIDE


1.

Phillipe watched the pale young woman coming down the Grand Degré from the abbey, slowly, past the knickknack shops and the kiosks selling holy water, in the midst of a crowd of tourists in the rain. She gleamed like an apparition against the gray afternoon light. It was late July but wet and cold, as is often the case along this stretch of the Breton coast. A perennial gloom emanated from the abbey's dark, medieval stones; low-lying clouds obscured the pinnacle of its famous spire.

The tourists were Americans, big and ruddy and loud and badly dressed in their usual array of sports paraphernalia and baseball caps — one of the package groups off the buses parked in an endless line along the causeway to the mainland. The pale young woman, clearly French, didn't belong with them, wasn't a part of their group, but seemed in the grip of a lethargy that prevented her from breaking away. Perhaps she had allowed herself to be drawn along at their shuffling pace rather then fight through the crush to the Gothic gates, to the causeway and the car park and the salt meadows and the tidal flats beyond, to France, a misty blue outline in the near distance. The Americans looked warm in their thick sweatshirts emblazoned with colorful logos. On their feet massive, elaborate sneaker boots — some with bulbous protrusions and lights that flashed with every step. The young woman wore only a thin cocktail dress made of a black, silky material, the sort of thing better suited to an intimate party in Paris, an evening at Soixante-Sept, or any of the other fashionable nightclubs in the Marais. The complicated straps of her sandals glittered with faux jewels; her toenails were painted gold.

The guide in charge of the American tour group raised his umbrella and began to speak, gesturing at the overhanging story of a half-timbered house from the fifteenth century. In the next moment other tour guides up and down the street raised similar umbrellas at similar houses and began to speak in their own languages, and an international cacophony echoed off the ancient, dripping facades. Phillipe heard snatches of German, Spanish, Japanese, Greek.

Meanwhile, the Americans had advanced a bit and now shuffled in place just across the railing from where Phillipe sat beneath the striped awning on the terrace of Aux Trois Ancres, sipping a cognac and going over his notes. He was writing a monograph on Erik Satie, the avant-garde composer — one of the most eccentric and whimsical figures of those bright decades lying across 1900 that the French call la Belle Époque — which he intended to submit to Revue du Musique Français. But Phillipe had been writing this particular monograph for a couple of years; writing was only a hobby for him, one of many. And now he rose out of his seat beneath the awning and let his notebook fall unheeded to the wet ground.

The young woman stood there, shivering in the rain, behind the broad backs of a couple of middle-aged American ladies. To call her beautiful missed the point. She possessed a kind of flickering quality, like a flame seen through a rice-paper screen. Her pale skin, nearly white, as if she lived entirely by moonlight or bathed exclusively in milk, seemed illuminated from inside. She was probably in her early twenties, and clearly Parisian — her dress and glittery sandals, her glossy black hair cropped short, all in the latest style — but this veneer of sophistication could not conceal the obvious from Phillipe: Here was someone in a great deal of trouble.

Now, the young woman's blue eyes, close to the color of Phillipe's own, though far more vivid — a kind of indigo blue — flashed toward him. Their gaze met for a second or two; she didn't seem to register his presence. Then, she turned away, and the tour group shuffled on, and somehow Phillipe knew she intended to commit suicide. More, he knew how she intended to do it: She was going to follow the Americans to their buses along the causeway, climb over the rocks and onto the mudflats with the tide rushing in, and simply give herself up to the relentless surge. She might be dashed against the breakwater, or washed out to sea, to England across La Manche. Either way, it wouldn't matter much to her, though she probably hoped they wouldn't find her body afterwards.

Phillipe gasped, certain of the annihilation he had seen in the depths of her eyes. But he also recognized this death wish as a kind of fatal caprice, a passing psychological squall. Two or three days from now, he knew, if she survived, thoughts of suicide would be gone from her. She might not even remember this desperate afternoon so far from familiar Parisian boulevards, with the rain coming down and the lumbering tourists and the gargoyled silhouette of the Mont-Saint-Michel acting as a suitably dramatic backdrop for her death. He watched her move off toward it now, the fatal tides already rolling in. She was through the l'Avancée gate, through the Porte du Roi, the Americans bearing her away like a crowd of gaudily dressed pallbearers — and yet he hesitated. How could he know what he knew? Was this some kind of macabre fantasy on his part? No! He had seen it! And he knew he didn't have much time.

Phillipe tossed a few bills down on the table, more than what he owed, and, leaving his notebook on the ground, dashed after the young woman, pushing pedestrians out of the way, crashing down through the causeway gate. She was already on the other side. He caught sight of her glossy black head, moving along about twenty meters up the causeway. She passed the first bus, then the second, and Phillipe's pace flagged slightly — could he be wrong about this after all? — then she sidestepped into the gap between the third and fourth bus and disappeared. He dodged around a clutch of Danes lined up to board a bus painted with a huge Danish flag that would take them back to Copenhagen, and came out on the narrow strip between the buses and the breakwater just as the young woman climbed down over the rocks exactly as he had imagined she would. In the distance, a white wall, advancing.

Phillipe leaped over the rocks without thinking about the possible consequences and slogged out as fast as he could, but he didn't seem to be making any progress. The wet, gummy sands of the flats sucked at his handmade leather boots; each step weighed a kilo. The young woman, barefoot and much lighter, glided across the surface, head down, oblivious to the doom rushing to meet her at a rate of about one meter every second — the speed, as Victor Hugo once observed, watching the rising tide from the battlements above, of a horse at fast gallop. Phillipe fought against the sand, lost one boot and kicked off the other, and somehow reached her no more than five seconds before the wall of water hit. He grasped her shoulder and swung her around and their eyes met for the second time that day. This time, she registered his presence as an outrage. She came back to herself with a shudder, and she came back angry.

"Non!" the young woman screamed. "Le salot! Bastard! Don't touch me! Let me go!"

"Not this time!" Phillipe shouted over the roar of the waves, then the water smashed down over them, hard. They were thrown back onto the sand, submerged and picked up and whirled along together in the current, like the damned lovers Paolo and Francesca in the hot wind of Dante's Inferno. Phillipe kept a hold on the young woman's shoulder, got an arm around her waist, and pushed off the bottom to surface for a breath of air. As the current lessened, he swam with one arm, pulling her along toward the causeway and the buses, their steely sides gleaming ahead like the gates of heaven.

The Foreign Legion emphasizes an utterly rigorous regime of physical fitness, even for its officers, musicians, and cooks; fortunately for Phillipe, the ability to swim a hundred meters in full combat gear was a mandatory part of basic training. Phillipe reached the causeway, was dashed against a sharp protrusion, cutting a gouge in his cheek; then he grabbed on to a rock and managed to pull both himself and the young woman to safety. He dragged her around the buses into the road as she coughed and choked out the sea-water she had attempted to swallow. The swift-running tides had torn the thin dress from her pale skin and she was naked except for a pair of midnight blue panties. Phillipe bent her over and pounded on her back with the flat of his hand as tourists stood around gaping. The Americans seemed shocked, not by the violence, of course, but by the nakedness. A few Japanese snapped pictures with expensive digital cameras.

"Is she all right?" one of the Americans asked in English.

"What the hell's going on?" another one asked.

"Maybe someone should go get the police, whattya call them — the ghendarms...."

The young woman crouched there, arms clutched about her nakedness, shivering violently, blue lips drawn over her white teeth.

"Your shirt!" Phillipe shouted in English at a tall man wearing a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt. "Can't you see she's freezing?"

"Here ya go, buddy," the tall man said, and he drew off his sweatshirt and tossed it to Phillipe. "Keep it."

The young woman still fought against him, but weakly now. He managed to get the huge sweatshirt over her head — it reached nearly to her knees — and Phillipe pulled her up and marched her back up the causeway toward the grim edifice of the Mont, looming like the prison it had been for a century or so of its thousand-year history, the prison it was again today for one shivering, stunned young woman. The prison of this life.


2.

They sat by the fire in the empty parlor of Phillipe's hotel drinking Calvados, the potent stuff warming their insides. The young woman — her name was Louise, this much Phillipe had managed to get out of her — now wore one of his expensive silk shirts and flannel pajama bottoms borrowed from the concierge's son, printed with cartoon figures from the Asterix comic books: There was Asterix, the pint-sized Gallic warrior in winged helmet, bottle of magic potion in hand; there the obnoxious bard Cacofonix playing his lyre; there Obelix hoisting a menhir, his little white dog at his side.

Louise, eyes lowered, studied her cartoon pajama pants with some intensity. The white dog, bone in its mouth, appeared to be headed for her inner thigh. She hadn't uttered more than a word or two since she'd been pulled from the sea. Phillipe had ordered a bifteck en sauce au poivre vert for her from the concierge, and when it came she ate hungrily, plate on lap, without comment.

When she was done, she wiped her mouth on the sleeve of Phillipe's shirt and studied him, a frank hostility in her eyes. No doubt he represented everything she'd been taught to despise: from the severe military cut of his hair to the conservative, tailor-made civilian clothes he wore, to his steady, serious demeanor. He was at least twenty years older than her and not exactly handsome. But he had the sinewy thinness that comes from rigorous field training, from an intimate familiarity with the Manual of Arms — coupled with an aristocratic demeanor that women found attractive. More, he had a kind of self-possession unavailable to ordinary men. There is a perfection to be achieved in matching oneself exactly to one's capacities; here was someone who was always quite successfully himself. A startling lock of pure white his ex-wife Celeste had derisively called the Flame of the Pentecost shone from the center of his dark scalp.

"Eh bien," Phillipe said, at last. "How does it feel to be alive?"

"Don't expect me to thank you," Louise said, thrusting out her lip like a child.

"I won't."

"How was the steak?"

"Not too bad. A little lacking in flavor, maybe."

Phillipe nodded. "I see."

"And don't get any ideas about going to the police. If you go to the police, I'll tell them ..." She hesitated, scowling. "... I'll tell them you were bothering me and I jumped in the water to get away from you."

A long silence followed this ungenerous threat. But Phillipe could see her point: Suicide was still a crime in France; anyone who attempted it might be legally incarcerated, either in a mental hospital or a jail. Really, he ought to call the police. The rain had picked up in the last hour and the dull sound of it drumming against the diamond-paned windows echoed in the little parlor.

"You're not going to believe this," Phillipe said at last, keeping his voice calm, affable. "But my family name is de Noyer" — literally of drown — "don't you think that's an odd coincidence?"

"No."

Phillipe tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. He had dealt with many recruits like this — sullen, aimless young men who had joined the Legion as the result of a drinking binge or because they'd run out of money to buy hash or cocaine, or because they'd never heard of any world where promises were kept; each bunch worse than the last as the years went by. They were cynical beyond all reason to be so, had no respect for tradition, no ambition, no faith, no real desire for anything except reckless sensation. No honor. His own adjutant Caporal-chef Pinard had been one of these; now he was a Legionnaire. But there existed an antidote to pointless nihilism, as simple as it was unexpected: high standards and extremely harsh discipline, impartially applied.

"You know I could have killed myself pulling your ass out of the drink?" He sat forward suddenly, an edge in his voice. "As it is, I lost my new boots and cut my cheek" — he touched the swollen place beneath his eye — "not to mention the price of that steak. Why did you do such a stupid thing?"

"That's my affair!" Louise spit out. "Fiche-moi la paix!" At this, Phillipe reached over and without warning slapped her hard across the mouth. She gasped and fell against the wingbacked chair.

"Canaille!" she cried, outraged. "Espèce de merde!" Tears began rolling down her cheeks. She leaned forward and put her face in her hands and began to sob. Phillipe watched impassively for a while. Then, he got up and wet his handkerchief in the water jug and handed it to her. She pressed the cool fabric against her eyes, against her cheeks, and her tears gradually subsided.

"I was in a new club last night, in Paris," she said, still gasping a little. "We waited a long time to get in, we were all pretty high. Ecstasy, some cocaine. I was there with my lover and his girlfriend — mine too, I guess, since we were both sleeping with the cheap little whore — then more of my friends came and ..."

"Go on," Phillipe said gently.

"Suddenly everything and everyone seemed horrible. Just horrible. I can't explain it ..."

"An attack of misanthropy," Phillipe suggested. "Depression. Disgust with life, with all the sordidness. Or perhaps just the drugs."

"I don't know. But I fought with everyone, viciously. I fought with my lover; I slapped Chantal and she pulled my hair and I slapped her again very hard and she cried, then I couldn't take it anymore, I just turned around and walked out. I left my purse on the bar, with everything, my papers, my keys, my coke, my money. I realized this outside when I got into a taxi — but I couldn't go back. Mais jamais! So I told myself if I could get all the way to the coast like just that, with nothing, then I'd drown myself in the sea, and then the horribleness would be completely finished. I took the métro to the gare d'Austerlitz without a ticket and I got on the TGV without a ticket and the conductor just walked by me. It was like I was invisible, already dead. I rode all the way up to Rennes on the train, then I got on a tour bus with some Americans and no one asked me anything. No one said a word. So I reached Mont-Saint-Michel and well" — she paused — "it seemed stupid not to go through with it ..." Her voice trailed off.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Gorgeous East by Robert Girardi. Copyright © 2009 Robert Girardi. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ROBERT GIRARDI is the author of five novels. His short fiction has been published everywhere from Tri-Quarterly to Virginia Literary Review, and his non-fiction has appeared in The New Republic and The Washington Post. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and USC Film School, Girardi has received a James Michener Fellowship. He lives in Washington, D.C, where he is the writer-in-residence at Goucher College.

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