Our Napoleon in Rags by Kirby Gann is an ambitious novel. It attempts to capture the anger, frustration, and despondency of those trapped in lower middle class urban life and yet at the same time describe the community and friendships they have built. The work seeks to get at these larger social issues through its character’s lives. Our Napoleon in Rags is a dark tale about the search for meaning in modern life. While it doesn’t always live up to its promise, it is an interesting exploration of character and setting.
The setting is an urban neighborhood called Old Towne; part of the city of Montreux. Reflecting the reality of many cities, Old Towne was once an upscale part of a thriving downtown but time has not been kind. Despite efforts to revitalize it, this part of the city has become a “broken-streetlight district” where “dark house-stoops offer no welcome.”
The story centers around a motley group of characters whose only connection is the Don Quixote – the Old Towne bar they frequent. The central character is Haycraft Keebler. Haycraft – the Napoleon in Rags of the title – is bipolar and in his mind a budding civic revolutionary. Also involved are the bar owners Beau and Glenda Stiles; Romeo Diaz and his stripper/porn star girlfriend Anantha Bliss; Chesley Sutherland, the suspended cop that provides security for the bar; Mather Williams, “a gentle but damaged soul” whose paintings and verse are viewed as a type of folk art; and Lambert Dellinger a fifteen year-old male prostitute.
Each of these characters is trying to build some meaning into their life. Haycraft sees meaning in trying to resurrect the neighborhood; to revive the city and its downtrodden people. Chesley just wants to get back on the police force and bust bad guys. Each of them has a dream to cling to despite the fading hopes and each ends up at the bar looking for the solace and community the larger city no longer offers.
The plot takes off when Haycraft become infatuated with Lambert and brings him into the Don Quixote group. A secondary plot developes out of the brooding violence of Sutherland. There is not a great deal of plot involved, however, rather the chapters are closer to character sketches that bring each of the patrons at the bar into closer focus. The tension builds slowly as the character’s lives are revealed.
What makes Napoleon in Rags difficult to judge is deciding what the author was trying to accomplish. Was Gann trying to create a “scathing commentary on contemporary America” as the book’s back flap claims? What about the “hot button issues of mental illness, homosexuality, police violence, and racism?” To be honest, I don’t think Gann has achieved a particularly strong social commentary or critique of contemporary America. There isn’t a great deal of insight into the problems of urban blight or mental illness here.
No, I think what Gann was getting at was the interesting characters that make up this part of urban America. It seems to me that Gann is fascinated by the type of people who end up trapped in places like Old Towne and how they fight to bring meaning to their lives. The strength of Napoleon in Rags is its evocation of a community that shares little more than broken dreams and a bar where they can share them.
What was somewhat problematic for me was the weakness of the central character Haycraft Keebler. Although he isn’t the narrator, he is the focus of much of the book. But I found other characters more fully drawn and more interesting. Keebler too often seems like Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces but without the comic absurdity and instead burdened by his mental illness.
The section on Romeo Diaz is one of the livelier sections. Romeo is a character with a little more depth. There is a tension to him; with his hyper-atheism, macho-ism, and disdain for those who think differently. But he also has a sense of decency and humanity that he doesn’t exactly know what to do with. He is one of those people who just can’t quite get it together; whose fate always rises just before it falls yet again.
I also thought more could have been done with the bar owners Beau and Glenda. They represent this search for something bigger in life; a search for meaning as one’s dreams fade. Glenda is a motherly figure for both Haycraft and Mather but finds the giving, when combined with her own physical labor at the bar, is wearing her down to the point where she must beg stimulants from Haycraft.
Gann throws in a twist at the end when the narrator is “revealed.” I found this rather confusing; the perspective wasn’t clear for me so the revelation was jaring. Nevertheless, loose ends are tied up and the agitation of the story’s closing scenes fade. Fittingly, the novel closes on pessimistic note about “how very little a man can do to change the world.”
As I said at the start, Napoleon in Rags is an ambitious work. In the end I am not sure how I feel about it. In many ways I was a victim of the hyperbole of the book’s back cover and the accompanying press material. I know this is a rather lame and weird criticism, but there it is. In recommending itself it promises too much. Relatedly, at times the work seems to force the issues and ideas to achieve social relevance. The strength of the work doesn’t lie in “hot button issues” or “scathing commentary” but in the descriptions of character and setting. This part of urban America is worthy of exploration and description and Gann should be commended for taking it on.