Romain Gary: Adieu Gary Cooper, Gallimard, 1969. (There is also an earlier version of this which Gary wrote in English in 1963, entitled The Ski Bum)
I had heard of this book from the Romain Gary superfan Emma – she actually reviewed the English-language edition on her blog, but stated that the French one is funnier and more poetic, so that was the one I read. I also read it right after my week-long stay in Switzerland plus the second part of the book takes place in the Geneva area, so every little detail was so familiar to me, including crossing the Franco-Suisse border (although without any smuggled gold in my car).
So the location and the skiing captivated me from the start, because, let me be completely honest with you, I could so easily have become a ski bum myself (and am still very upset that I’ve lost the best years of my skiing life living in countries where skiing is not easily accessible). The ‘ski bum’ seems to be the official, if rather unflattering name of the wintry counterculture hero, the winter edition of the ‘surf dude’ if you like. Prepared to do any kind of job, live in fairly basic conditions, as long as they can catch that perfect powder snow and ski for 100 or more days per season. This is not the perfectly groomed, rather crowded, very expensive skiing experience that most of us have when we go on a week-long skiing holiday, but a sort of return to nature – perhaps more fantasy than reality, but perfect escapism.
For Lenny, the ski bum of the English title, it is certainly escape from conscription to go to Vietnam, but also from JFK’s statement: ‘Ask now what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’, which simply sounds sinister and coercive to him. Lenny is a dropout, with minimal education and no desire to better himself, but with the movie star looks of Gary Cooper he is able to make a bit of extra money as a ski monitor to wealthy ladies. He admires Gary Cooper as the strong, silent type, which he also strives to become (especially since he doesn’t speak any other languages, and in fact has some trouble expressing himself clearly even in English). He avoids any romantic entanglements, looks down upon any displays of emotion, although he isn’t quite the nasty macho type – more like a bewildered little boy that women would like to mother.
However, he is slightly ridiculed for his Gary Cooper fixation by the motley crew of other ski bums who have all converged at the chalet of their rich, generous friend Bug Moran (I can’t help wondering if Gary deliberately chose such an unprepossessing name for him):
Gary Cooper is over. Completely and utterly over. Farewell to the quiet American, sure of himself and his sense of what’s right, who fights against the baddies, always for a good cause, who lets justice triumph in the end and always wins. Farewell, American certainties! Ciao, Gary Cooper!
If Lenny’s friends are all hustlers without any loftier ambitions than finding the perfect slope, Jess Donahue, the daughter of the American consul in Geneva, is surrounded by a group of wannabe revolutionaries spouting ideologies and pictures of utopian future worlds they plan to build. Both groups are equally deluded and funny, yet somehow Jess and Lenny come together as the most unlikely (yet nevertheless touching) couple ever. Except that there are ulterior motives to their relationship… and a lot of betrayal and heartbreak will follow, no matter how cynical both Jess and Lenny claim to be.
Gary addresses some serious themes in this novel: the loss of ideals, the gruesome consequences of Realpolitik, the search for identity as an individual but also as a state when the political landscape has changed. Yet these are all handled with a light touch, deftly concealed in a gripping, almost cinematic story with many moments that made me laugh out loud.
For example, in the first part of the book, Lenny is trying to escape from a short affair with Swiss secretary Trudi, but she won’t take no for an answer, so he finally tells her that he killed a policeman in Basle and is therefore on the run and cannot remain with her. A tearful separation scene follows, but, needless to say, the next day the Swiss police shows up to arrest him as Trudi felt obliged to report him. Yep, that’s the Switzerland I know and love!
Frothiness and satire, with a dash of social critique and genuine emotion – I don’t know how Romain Gary does it, but he does it well!
I should add that there is a Genevois rock band named Adieu Gary Cooper and their album Outsiders is full of social critique done in a humorous way as well, such as the one below: ‘Work is badly paid’.