Dominique Fabre, born in Paris and a lifelong resident of the city, exposes the shadowy, anonymous lives of many who inhabit the French capital.The story Fabre tells is that of every one of us: looking for meaning in the mundane, moving through our lives, our interactions, as if through the fabric of a dream
Dominique Fabre, Guys Like Me, Trans. by Howard Curtis, New Vessel Press, 2015. excerpt
Dominique Fabre, born in Paris and a lifelong resident of the city, exposes the shadowy, anonymous lives of many who inhabit the French capital. In this quiet, subdued tale, a middle-aged office worker, divorced and alienated from his only son, meets up with two childhood friends who are similarly adrift, without passions or prospects. He’s looking for a second act to his mournful life, seeking the harbor of love and a true connection with his son. Set in palpably real Paris streets that feel miles away from the City of Light, Guys Like Me is a stirring novel of regret and absence, yet not without a glimmer of hope.
There are no second acts,” Dominique Fabre writes in his new novel “Guys Like Me”. It’s a nod to Fitzgerald, sure, but it is also an existential statement, made by an unnamed Parisian who, as he drifts through his 50s, finds himself increasingly unmoored
Divorced, the father of an adult son, he works in an office, although we never find out much about what he does. Rather, the novel revolves around small interactions, particularly with two old friends and with a woman he meets on a dating site. “Sometimes,” he tells us, “you’re so alone you think you’re talking aloud even when you haven’t said a word.”
Fabre is a genius of these nuanced, interior moments; his 2008 novel, “The Waitress Was New,” offered a similar glimpse of quiet lives. Born and raised in Paris, he’s written a dozen or so books, but none of the others have been translated into English.
That’s a real loss, because in both “The Waitress Was New” and “Guys Like Me,” he stakes out a compelling territory, explicating the inner lives of characters who cannot quite articulate their hopes and longings to themselves. Middle-aged, middle-class, office workers mostly, they are reminiscent of the grey men and women evoked by Nathanael West in “Miss Lonelyhearts,” except that Fabre’s characters are motivated more by disappointment than despair.
This is not to say they are without hope, or even redemption, although this, too, happens on its own terms. Fabre’s narrator finds solace (if that’s the right word) in his relationship with his son, which is tentative yet caring, and in the possibilities of his connection to the woman as it grows.
And yet, he never promises too much, or expects anything. “I dreamed about my childhood,” he acknowledges, in one of the novel’s liveliest passages. “That doesn’t happen often these days. It seemed quite beautiful now. Why? Maybe because I didn’t have much time left? And then finally it all calmed down, as if nothing had happened, just like that, because it was the next day.”
What Fabre is getting at is the insubstantiality of even the most resonant moment, the way that we are all lost in the face of time.
On the one hand, that’s a theme that runs throughout contemporary French literature; it echoes the work of novelists such as Albert Camus, Patrick Modiano, Nathalie Sarraute. On the other, it gets at not just the condition of modernity but humanity itself. The story Fabre tells is that of every one of us: looking for meaning in the mundane, moving through our lives, our interactions, as if through the fabric of a dream. What we live on the outside and what we feel on the inside — that is the divide he traces in this book.
It’s tempting to call “Guys Like Me” a novel about nothing, but in fact it is more accurately about everything. How do we live? it asks to consider. And: What does our existence mean? That it doesn’t offer an answer is the point precisely because answers crumble in the end. “I’m waiting for tomorrow,” Fabre’s narrator tells us. “Well, there it is.” - David L. Ulin
The novel begins as the narrator runs into an old friend, Jean, whose life has similarly stalled. With a wink and a nod they resume the friendship that they had lost years ago. We’re also introduced to Marco, or Marc-André, who, along with Jean, becomes the third member of this sad band of rapidly-aging, aimless men. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the narrator’s divorce from Anaïs, and the painful estrangement from his son, Benjamin.
Early in the novel, we learn the great extent to which the narrator’s mind torments him. “Since my separation, I haven’t had a real love affair,” the narrator tells us. “I don’t have the strength for it anymore, I kept telling myself. But why would I need strength? How the time passes . . . Quite often, my thinking stops there, and I try to sleep immediately afterwards, because I really don’t know what’s waiting for me if I keep thinking.” What little hope remains in his heart he’s found in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said there are no second acts in American life. “There are no second acts,” the narrator says. “But I still believe there are, from time to time.”
He finds his second act in Marie, a woman he meets through an online dating website. When she begins treatment for breast cancer, the narrator finds himself once again falling in love and discovering that, despite what he has told himself, he does have the strength for another love affair—one that could last long enough to be considered a “second act.”
The immersive power of the novel comes from the narrator’s voice. He begins each paragraph somewhere, then wanders somewhere else, jumping idea to idea, often without starting new sentences. The reader must slow down to figure out whether he’s integrating dialogue into his prose or recalling something someone once said or mocking someone. But in forcing us to slow down, the author has invited us to occupy the narrator’s mind perhaps more intimately than we would otherwise.
By the end, we’re left feeling good about the narrator’s “second act,” though we realize that, on some level, most of the man’s life has gone by, much of it spent in some state of misery or confusion. It’s easy to see how many people—men, of course, but women, too—can relate to guys like this narrator. After all, he does say, with his touch of dry humor, “there are only a few million of us, I think.” - Peter Biello
Dominique Fabre, The Waitress Was New, Trans. by Jordan Stump, Archipelago Books, 2010.
Pierre is a veteran bartender in a café in the outskirts of Paris. He observes his customers as they come and go – the young man who drinks beer as he reads Primo Levi, the fellow who from time to time strips down and plunges into the nearby Seine, the few regulars who eat and drink there on credit – sizing them up with great accuracy and empathy. Pierre doesn’t look outside more than necessary; he prefers to let the world come to him. Soon, however, the café must close its doors, and Pierre finds himself at a loss. As we follow his stream of thoughts over three days, Pierre’s humanity and profound solitude both emerge. The Waitress Was New is a moving portrait of human anguish and weakness, of understated nobility and strength. Lire est un plaisir describes Dominique Fabre as a "magician of the everyday."
For his U.S. debut, Fabre offers a poignantly funny, slender slice of a French waiter's life. Pierre, 56 and divorced, has worked at the suburban Parisian cafe Le Cercle for so long that he's become a fixture. He's a good listener, too, particularly to the boss's wife, heartbroken over her husband's seeming affair with the young head waitress, Sabrina. As a long shift unrolls, the boss and Sabrina are absent from the busy cafe, leaving Senegalese cook Amédée fuming and Pierre and the title's fill-in waitress scrambling. The next day brings big changes, and loyal, orderly Pierre must suddenly measure out his mortality by the pay stubs he has hoarded over his working life. In Fabre's patient, deliberative layering, the details of Pierre's quotidian life assume an affecting solidity and significance. - Publishers Weekly
The strong, intimate voice of this gentle, canny narrator continues to stay with us long after we reach the end of The Waitress Was New—what an engrossing, captivating tale, in Jordan Stump’s sensitive translation. —Lydia Davis
Simply and elegantly captures the dignity of a day’s work, the humanity of friendship and the loneliness of aging. —Kirkus Reviews
A sweetly comic book, savored with tristesse, lightly renders feeling and profundity in the manner only the French can. —Reamy Jansen
Fabre becomes the lyrical, compassionate spectator of all these infinitesimal, silent lives—our lives—as they move between leaving the suburban underground station and arriving home. It is a tiny fragment of life, simply told and yet touching in the extreme. When Fabre writes, he ‘really believes in the possibility of showing you genuine beauty, genuine dignity and places or people that have been somehow overlooked.’ Mission accomplished. —French Book News
The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.
I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.
The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.
Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.
As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his ‘everyman’ life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the ‘slice of life’ feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future. - E.J. Van Lanen
The Waitress was New is narrated by Pierre, a fifty-six-year old barman at a French café, Le Cercle. He has his role and his routine, but over the course of this short novella he keeps getting pushed out of these. It begins with the new waitress, standing in for the regular waitress, Sabrina, who is out sick. That only makes for a slight adjustment, but there's more to come.
The café is run by a younger married couple, but Henri, the boss, is getting restless again, and he disappears when he should be taking care of business. His wife is all in a tizzy when she's not sure what he's up to, and Pierre tries his best to keep things running more or less smoothly.
Pierre is past his mid-life crisis -- which hit him hard when he turned fifty-four (that "almost threw me into the Seine, if you'll pardon the expression") -- and he seems more resigned-philosophical, admitting some regrets (especially about not really settling down) and wondering how his life has come to this. He's not completely resigned: there's a customer who always has his head stuck in a book, and though Pierre is no great reader he sometimes goes out and buys whatever he sees the fellow is reading, a volume of Queneau, a Primo Levi, for example. And he takes some pride in his role at the café, which seems to suit him. Events, however, force him to take more things than he's used to into his hands, life-changing turmoil that he's not sure he's up to any more at this stage in his life.
The Waitress was New is a fairly simple story -- little more than a character-study. But Pierre is a sympathetic character, slowly revealed by Fabre (and the circumstances), and it makes for an appealing little novella. - The Complete Review
Pierre, the hero of Dominique Fabre's The Waitress Was New, is a barman at a café in the French suburbs—it's his job to ensure that stomachs are full and the bread unburnt. Pierre recounts a few days in his life that encompass the closing of the café where he's worked for so long. Unmarried, childless, with only a few friends, Pierre locates his meager sense of self-worth in his work. "You really are a useful thing in other people's lives when you're a barman," he muses. "The customers don't realize it outright, of course, but when all's said and done, in good times and bad, there's always a bar in their lives, and a barman, a bit wizened but very professional, to serve them whatever they want." Alas, the book's plot deprives Pierre of his job and leaves him alone and adrift with his discursive thoughts. At 117 pages, it's the slimmest of the three novels, and easily the slightest, a scant portrait of a man bereft of self-awareness. But it does put one in mind of the proper remedy for three depressing novels. Pierre, give me a Lillet. And don't be stingy, baby. - Alexis Soloski