The set-up for A PARISIAN FROM KANSAS is simple. The fast expiring Darren Swenson, a beautiful, self-absorbed Kansas boy, wants to leave behind more than the comet trail of his burnout. Literary immortalization is promised by heterosexual Philippe Tapon, character and author, who writes and lives this book at one and the same time.
While this sounds promising, the result is decidedly juvenile. For one thing, Tapon does not have the stylistic command of English he thinks, doing things to the language like “waving big-hippily.” In his longer set pieces, he piles up forced details for sound, not accuracy, as with “suspension bridges lit like lakes of electric fire.”
Worse, the reader is repeatedly told things there is no other evidence for, Darren’s magnetism being a case in point. Over and over, characters refer to the force of his charm when he is obviously spoiled and self-centered, a fact that Tapon finally does notice. The subsequent souring of compassion is a major theme that falls flat, however, because there is no sense of real people or true human suffering.
The question of “truth” gets talked about a lot, but then, the book is mostly talk. When characters are not praising the book they are in or marvelling at Tapon’s literary allusions, they argue about feelings and ideas, dialogue that packs all the wallop of a high school rap session. So little happens that Tapon has to switch from po-mo mode to straightforward first-person narrative by means of a “tape” of Darren. Unfortunately, this reveals that, far from being on a spiritual quest, he is just another farm boy looking for a good time in New York and Paris in the age of AIDS. The one true voice is Tapon’s bitter sense of entitlement, which he parades as artistic suffering.
Toward the end there is increasing speculation about whether Darren even exists. Who cares? The confusion about what is fiction and what is fact becomes coy, then cloying, because it never leads to any insight about life or the literary models Tapon reveres—or even about this book itself. With its relentless self-congratulation, the novel comes off finally as less-referent than self-reverent and, so, blind to the very things it wants the reader to see.