Van Gogh's Bad Cafe: A Love Story

Van Gogh's Bad Cafe: A Love Story

by Frederic Tuten

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Vincent van Gogh created his life's work out of a vortex of passion and delirium so intense his paintings seem to burst off the canvas. In Van Gogh's Bad Café, Frederic Tuten, the highly acclaimed author of Tintin in the New World, imagines the personification of van Gogh's fervor and madness: Ursula, one of the most beguiling creations in


Vincent van Gogh created his life's work out of a vortex of passion and delirium so intense his paintings seem to burst off the canvas. In Van Gogh's Bad Café, Frederic Tuten, the highly acclaimed author of Tintin in the New World, imagines the personification of van Gogh's fervor and madness: Ursula, one of the most beguiling creations in recent literature. A morphine-addicted, 19-year-old photographer, Ursula is van Gogh's lover and tormentor. But she is lost to him, and he to her, when she steps through a crack in the wall of the Bad Café and finds herself in a strange world — modern-day New York. As Ursula seeks to embrace her new environs, van Gogh struggles with his isolation and his demons in 19th-century France. Illustrated with watercolors and drawings by Eric Fischl, this highly original fiction moves nimbly between centuries and perspectives. It delves thoughtfully and imaginatively into the inner life of an artist who has fascinated so many, exploring that complex place where art and life intersect.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A magical painter in words, Tuten (Tintin in the New World) gets inside the Dutch artist's wounded soul as few writers have. In this exquisite postmodernist fantasy, Ursula, a mercurial, morphine-addicted 19-year-old photographer who is Vincent van Gogh's lover, shuttles back and forth between 19th-century France and present-day New York City. In the East Village, she becomes the roommate and occasional lover of Louis, a down-and-out photographer. Back in time, meanwhile, Tuten's van Gogh is a gaunt, pipe-smoking, half-drunk misfit in a world out of joint, raging with jealousy at other artists. Lonely beyond words and even beyond his own pictures, he seeks a world purged of pain and suffering, so that love and beauty can reign on Earth. Ursula, too, is enthralled by beauty, and seeks to capture it with her camera lens. But in leaving behind the Old World, she experiences dizzying culture shock. To share the burden, Louis agrees to travel back in time, where he drinks and arm-wrestles with the tortured painter. Tuten is a remarkable stylist, able in one sentence to combine the lyricism of a parable with the grit of Avenue B: "I was ready, already, to live with her and share the common dish, to make children-should she want-and bring home the bacon, if need be... or to become a pair of companionate hawks in our iron love nest atop the Brooklyn Bridge." Is Ursula just an obsessed 1990s street kid inspiring Louis to fantasize? It's anyone's guess as Tuten gorgeously explores the interface of reality and illusion, art and life, love and death. Illustrated with original color and black-and-white prints by Eric Fischl (not seen by PW). (Mar.)
Library Journal
Whisking us from 19th-century Aix en Chappelle to 20th-century New York, Tuten (Tintin in the New World, LJ 6/15/93) paints a lovelorn Van Gogh.
Kirkus Reviews
Again blurring the lines between past and present, fact and fancy, Tuten (Tintin in the New World, 1993, etc.) reconfigures his familiar theme of love's totemic urgency, here pitting the needs of Vincent van Gogh against those of a late-20th-century rival in Manhattan's East Village.

When flame-haired Ursula steps through the only standing wall in one of Alphabet City's rubble-strewn lots, she by chance also steps forward in time and into the startled gaze of a downtrodden photographer, a boozy epileptic who thinks he's having another fit. He isn't, though, so he takes her home, where she strips away her century-old garments, soaks in his tub, and begins to tell her story. She is herself a photographer, morphine-addicted, and the teenage muse of van Gogh. He is completely infatuated with her, though her own desperate needs bring nothing but trouble to their relationship. In fact, Ursula was searching for a fix when she stepped through the wall into the next century, and in spite of her would-be rescuer's (whom she names Louis after the dealer she was really looking for) now being infatuated with her himself, Ursula still craves the calm that narcotics provide. She explores Louis's demimonde, then strikes out on her own, taking in all that the city's drug culture can offer and recasting herself as a punk beauty. In spite of her assimilation and her affection for the hapless Louis, however, she worries about Vincent and one day steps back through the wall to her French cottage—though the mechanism of her return malfunctions, so that Vincent finds her as something less than she was.

A tender tale, its magical effects as beautifully nuanced as its portrayal of van Gogh is passionate. The New York scene, though, is far less compelling, leaving a mismatch in intensity that's hard to overlook, no matter how much one might want to.

Product Details

Black Classic Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

It was different then. You could be standing by a burned-out lot, waiting for no one and nothing, not even for a lonely red bus. You'd be just there, studying the rubble of a building along Avenue C. Charred bricks and shrieking plaster board, a bathtub naked on its side, and through its drain, a lone sunflower, sulfuric yellow and furred like a honeybee screwing upward toward a whirling yellow sun.

Standing there at that corner, you could say hello to the wildest strangers as they passed you by, because down there, we were all loose change tripping the streets, the coins falling where they may, liberty dimes and buffalo nickels mixing promiscuously, without a thought, on some blue curb below Tenth Street.

"Hi, Jack. Hi, Jill." You'd give a little salute, and most times, they'd wave back or smile or come over and ask about where to crash, about where to score, sometimes just to have a chat with a stranger. We recognized who we were at a glance—all irregulars from the drifting nation of dreamy youth. We're ghosts of those times now, just nicked, straight-edged razors heaped in pawnshop drawers. Don't get old. Don't die. Kill despair. Keep hope.

How easily flowed the day in those old times, when I was most alive, my blood running casually and forever. I'd be letting the hours pass in a drowse, drinking, sleeping, now and then shooting pictures for love and for the truth in them, every frame a hedge against oblivion, the never having lived—I believed things like that in those days.

I used to sit away an afternoon in Mousey's Bar—vanished now—on Avenue C and drink slowly through the day until evening hit the pavement. In those days, I'd bring Mouseymy check and take a few dollars in cash for walking money and film stock, and leave him the rest for me to draw against the bar. The bar being my endless draw, calling me to my little round table by the window where I could read and look out on the street and go off and take a walk—and maybe shoot a roll of river and clouds—and return to find my cozy drink still waiting.

Excerpted from Van Gogh's Bad Cafe. Copyright © 1997 by Frederic Tuten.

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