In Dark Diversions, acclaimed author John Ralston Saul stages a black comedy of international proportions that takes the reader from New York to Paris to Morocco to Haiti in the 1970s and 1980s. When he’s not encountering dictators in Third World hot spots, Saul’s narrator moves in privileged circles on both sides of the Atlantic, insinuating himself into the lives of well-to-do aristocrats. Through his exploits we experience a fascinating world of secret lovers, exiled princesses, death by veganism, and religious heresies. The emotional fireworks of these inhabitants of the First World are sharply juxtaposed with the political infighting of the dictators and the corruption, double-dealing, and fawning that attend them. But as he becomes further enmeshed in these worlds, the outsider status of the narrator grows more ambiguous: Is he a documentarian of privileged foibles and fundamental inequity, or an embodiment of the very "dark diversions" he chronicles?
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But are these simply real people masquerading as fictional characters? Or has Saul used his considerable powers of imagination to create them?
Just as the reader is certain the narrator has revealed himself as an avatar for the author, the jarring chapter “The Narrator Pauses to Reflect” appears, and doubt is cast: “I may well be the author dissembling as the narrator. You can’t be certain, and why should I remove any doubt?”
The intrusive narrator, that wink from chronicler to audience that says there is a shared secret between them, also appeared in Saul’s 1992 non-fiction work Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.
To have successfully used such a device in both fiction and non-fiction is ample evidence of superior talent. But Saul takes the role of narrator even further in Dark Diversions.
Not content to let one character’s story play out to its logical end, the narrator goes beyond mere intrusion. He steps in and alters the outcome.
An ingenious read, Dark Diversions will be a solid end-of-summer choice for a wide and varied audience.
I’ve met people like them,” he said, cautiously avoiding names. “I actually did see a general wave his weapon at someone while he was giving orders. He had no intention of shooting the thing . . . it’s just what he used to point.
I’ve been in the presence of dictators and if I were reporting it, I don’t think I’d have anything interesting to say. There’s nothing to say. Dictators are boring. But by moving into fiction, you actually find what is interesting about those people. In true fiction you don’t have to explain anything. That’s why fiction is wonderful.
The narrator’s seemingly remote involvement in the encounters he describes, and his clean and unadorned prose, were consciously borrowed from Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Guy de Maupassant and “the great god Hemingway,” Saul admitted.
Their narrators often didn’t take responsibility for what went on around them, and their awkwardness in their efforts not to be responsible are appealing to me.
These writers told stories in a lean and minimalist way through narrators whose responsibility can be inferred. I think it’s less usual to see that in fiction today. It raises interesting questions for the reader. And it provides moments of unusual humour. This book is very deliberately a picaresque comedy.
After a well-written essay – Voltaire’s Bastards – of which we said good things, John Saul has released Some Good Americans, a delight under the palm trees, a pitcher of Margaritas on the table, what, in French, we call “miscellaneous”, a collection of fables, mini-stories, reports from the author à la New Yorker, that is to say, rigorous, strict, of high quality, typed on an old Remington.
Saul has set out to draw the portrait of “upper middle class” Americans, (not the true rich, whom no one notices) from the 70, when many from the Eastside cultivated simplicity in the same way the English cultivated cattleyas – in a hot house atmosphere – what Saul calls “the hair shirt of the very rich”. And yet one can’t help but adore Mrs. Revere, a filthy rich woman in her seventies, who goes fishing for beach boys on the Italian Riviera, all the while complaining that “sex, my dear, is so boring”.
“The last sexual innovation goes back to the time when human beings, or whatever we were then, climbed out of the ocean to live on dry land. Doing it on dry land, that, my dear, was something new.”
John Saul excels at stories that we shall call “hourglass vortexes”: the whirlwind which inhales the protagonists, strangles them into a tidy knot and then expels them, backwards, into the nothingness of infinity. Here is a story about Jack-of-the-Beautiful-Boots; his mistress Patty who loses a finger, wins 2 million dollars, sleeps with her would-be killers whom she then buys; Jack’s wife, the Boot-Cuddler, who steals all her ex-husband’s money and then tries to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.
The narrator, it appears, has met a few dictators in his career as a journalist, and resents that he can’t tell us about his visit with the confidante of that little asshole “Hassan II”, Colonel Dlimi, who tells him a huge lie about his role as a willing prisoner in the Ben Barka affair. A lie which Saul says no longer has any importance – “there’s almost a certain eroticism to it.”
After Hurricane Sally blows across Haiti, he interviews Baby Doc, the man with the smallest, most closely set eyes he’s ever seen. Such a simpleton is Baby Doc that he tells the journalist he hopes the story will help free up 200 million dollars in international aid (for his own bank account, of course). In a provincial bullring, there is the Franco-oide Blas Pinar, who plays with a manipulable crowd the way he would with a bull.
In the middle of the book, John Saul digresses on the sad state of the narrator in western literature at the end of the 20th century. He laments the Golden Age of the Narrator, the basic working tool of the writer, when the writer would hide inside his characters and not make off with them, as today’s writer is wont to do.
To illustrate his thoughts, Saul invents the crazy story of an Episcopalian friend, a New Yorker, whose Catholic wife runs of with an Irish cop whom she then turns into an Episcopalian. One day she goes to confession at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris only to find that the priest to whom she has confessed is her ex-husband. With abandon, they immediately possess each other, against a pillar near the one where Claudel, unless it was his brother Frossard, had his revelation. And why am I telling you this? asks the author, knowing full well that he gives us great pleasure.
Last but not least, the best part, a real T-bone steak – the end. A psycho thriller, of faux romantic tenderness for the narrator, who, as a student in Paris, lived near and hung out at the bar of the Closerie des Lilas. With the curiosity of an apprentice writer, he follows a man – an American à la Fitzgerald in Paris, a pure Englishman in London – who ends up thinking he is being blackmailed. The ending is horrifying – a pity! – but the victim is sacrificed with great enthusiasm. We discover, with fascination, that the narrator, like Santa Claus, can also be a bastard.
About the rich, Scott Fitzgerald said : “Rich people are different.” To which Hemingway replied; “Yes, they have more money.” For John Saul, the rich are strange beings, thus interesting to observe. For a writer, they make good characters. One only has to be there. Clearly, the author knows a string of rich people around the world. His address book isn’t the same as a train conductor’s. Wherever he goes, he always has a number to call, a dinner to attend, an address at which to stay. Once the address book is closed, one is convinced of one thing: he’ll never be invited back.
John Saul has the eye, the aloofness, the killer turn-of-phrase of a Truman Capote. We are not far from Music for Chameleons. Some Good Americans paints a series of portraits – to be included one must have a significant bank balance and be born in the United States.
In a unified, clear voice, Saul shells out a series of very cruel anecdotes. Did you say jet-set? It makes you shake to discover their turpitudes, their hideous secrets. They detest each other, sleep with each other, frequent the same restaurants. Let’s put the Denver couple who are in mourning under the microscope. She seems inconsolably sad, for good reason. What her husband doesn’t know is that she had planned to poison him. Everything was set, except her darling sona te the fatal lemon tart instead.
Each text presents a separate destiny, details the dark corridors of divorce and inheritance, where zeros are counted by the dozen. We move from a five-star hotel in Porto Ercole to a Texas prison. In New York, we never leave Fifth Avenue. Little by little, you become outraged that these people don’t have criminal records. Dorothy, a vegetarian, marries Patrick, whom she converts to her philosophy. He stops drinking, smoking, eating meat, and within two years, he’s dead. Another charming young man, who is sterile, convinces his wife, with the help of a childhood friend who’s a gynaecologist, that she is. They are capable of anything.
Throughout the pages, there are small murders, without importance. It’s just a game the rules of which must be mastered. Don’t imitate the nurse who got her claws into her paralysed patient’s fortune. Don’t keep a journal, like the impeccable American who hid the fact that he was a homosexual from his family for his whole life. The choice piece is called “A Romantic heroine,” in which Eleanor looks for a husband in the classifieds, and asks Saul to watch over her during her rendezvous. It’s strange and disturbing. At a certain point, Saul says to a doctor: “I envy you. Writers spend their life looking for man’s heart. You see it, naked and transparent, up to eight times a day.” Saul serves us up several hearts: bleeding, distressed, cynical or full of remorse.
At regular intervals, he tells us the story of his encounters with different dictators of the world. Would he be implying that millionaires are also monsters? Come on, what misplaced spirit! And happiness in all this? Now there’s a word that rings like a horrible vulgarity here. John Saul stops, without raising his collar, to reflect on his status as narrator. “Don’t think I’ve tried to breathe any meaning into these stories. They don’t have any.” But then why would you believe him?
There exists a very particular family of writes – collectors. They seem to wander around the many corners of the world for the simple pleasure of adding delightful or extravagant characters to their stories. In short, they are entomologists. Peeping Toms, or pickpockets who rummage around and then empty their secrets as others pinch wallets. But there is more. The real writers who are collectors, Peeping Toms, entomologists or pickpockets (your choice) aren’t activists, or even simply disposed to extricate a moral from their stories. To the contrary, they are completely disillusioned, amoral. They observe society – good or bad, familiar or exotic, it doesn’t matter – with a kind of tired vigilance, a nonchalant or suicidal curiosity, depending on the situation. Look at Somerset Maugham, Scott Fitzgerald or Maupassant. They all could have taken to heart the warning from Saul, their not unworthy Canadian successor. “Don’t think I’ve tried to breathe any meaning into these stories. They don’t have any.” Or, “Periodically, I long to submerge myself in a tide of insignificance.”
Tide for tide, each writer has his own favourite body of water, his own hunting ground, his own victims of choice. Some prefer old British colonialists, crippled by boredom and rheumatism in the Malay Archipelago (Maugham); others, gracious young women from the South who are intoxicated by their first love or first cocktails (Fitzgerald); still others prefer provincial noteworthies who oscillate between the conjugal bedroom and the whorehouse (Maupassant). But one would be hard pressed to see existential consequences or proof of their commitment. John Saul seems to divide his research or his fascination between two groups of people; ageing, rich Americans and dictators, of variable age, whose virtues Saul describes as: “the art of seducing crowds, which is intimately tied to large scale murder, in other words, theatre.” Which means that what separates Baby Doc in Haiti, General Dlimi in Morocco, and the wife of an industrialist in Denver or Chicago, are only degrees. The former execute their opponents the way we blow our nose; the latter only ruin their spouses, poisoning them or forcing them to eat so strictly they ultimately die.
Should you cry? Certainly not! Should you laugh? Yes indeed! For John Saul notices, irrefutably, that if Generals end badly as dictators, dictators too end badly, and Americans often miss their target and poison the wrong person. One can be a snob, a monster, and stupid. One can also be, like Saul himself, very intelligent, convinced of the worst yet reveal an enchanting sense of humour, wickedness, irony. Multiple portraits, “things seen” and extravagant stories, each time presented with a new angle, aren’t easy. Like love, if one believes the words of an old American woman, words from one of the best stories in the book, words which sum up the delectable tone of the book:
“At my age, sex is too repetitive… The last sexual innovation goes back to the time when human beings, or whatever we were then, climbed out of the ocean to live on dry land. Doing it on dry land, that, my dear, was something new.”
If you are scathing, if parvenus, have-you-seen-em’s and other nouveaux riches ruin the scenery for you, if you’re a snob (really), a cynical nothing, you are the ideal summer reader of the 17 stories John Saul has brought together in one book and called Some Good Americans.
While writing an important essay, Voltaire’s Bastards, 656 pages on the dictatorship of reason in the West, John Saul, to relax, wrote these sketches, which are sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes calmly cynical. Sketches which are stiffly humorous and often very black. We run into, among others, a rich, old woman disdainful of the waiters but whose antecedents aren’t that far from those of the waiters; a woman from Denver whose son is poisoned with the cake she prepared for her husband; a man who dies from following the strict food diet of his wife; a slightly inane princess who marries a too fat nightclub owner; as well as the many dictators the narrator meets, unexpectedly or almost, in his world travels.
And let us talk about the narrator: even though he maintains (in “the narrator takes time to reflect”) that he has settled up with the imbecile reader who wants to confuse him with the author, this refined character, traipsing around the world with a slightly haughty curiosity, is not without things in common with John Saul himself. Here are two men who are both observers, lucid, pitiless of too polished exteriors, too civilized for the end of a century where vulgarity parades around with the indecency of contentment. Two men, or the same man, it doesn’t matter, to compose these 17 texts which make one story, a delightful novel, invigoratingly wicked.