Eric Boss reviews RANCID PANSIES

Rancid Pansies by James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa Editions
ON SALE NOVEMBER 8,2008

I don’t usually write up backlist titles as old as this one, but in this case I believe relatively few readers have had a chance to see it, and greater awareness of it is merited. It is painfully funny and besides contains trenchant social and environmental commentary, if that doesn’t sound impossible.

The author is a sort of snarky, woke modern-day P.G. Wodehouse with a wicked bite. His protagonist, Gerry Samper, is an author of ghost-written biographies chronicling the exploits of various sports figures. Skiers, auto racers and most recently a bestselling tome about a one-armed female sailing enthusiast who suffered a televised fatal boating accident. He is clever, narcissistic, devoted to unusual cooking methods and ingredients (think a dish made from harvested field rodents called mice krispies) and a fanatic about music, particularly opera. He’s escaped the confines of his native England for the balmier climes and more intriguing cuisine of Italy, but his beloved home has precipitously plunged into the adjoining ravine, leaving him without possessions of any kind. His return to the land of his birth is fraught with disaster culminating in one of the funniest passages about a formal dinner I’ve ever read. It is worth the reading of the book.

Once again ensconced in his Tuscan haven he embarks upon the epic task of writing a modern opera based on the life of Princess Diana. He claimed while still dazed from the plunge of his house to have been warned of the impending calamity by a vision of the princess. The site of the geological and architectural disaster has become in his absence a shrine to the estimable Diana and the local movers and shakers have decided to take economic advantage of the growing number of pilgrims to the site. He is obliged to follow suit, maintain his fiction about the royal spectral visitation and finds that he is profiting from it personally.

I’ll say no more, except that this is more fun than one book should provide without requiring a prescription for its purchase. The writing is erudite, scathingly funny, endlessly inventive and the situations could be described as Abbot-and-Costello-esque but with intellect. Kudos to Europa for bringing this one to our shores. Hamilton-Paterson has two previous books about Gerry Samper, Cooking with Fernet Branca and Amazing Disgrace. The author’s penchant for anagrams is a delightful plus – see if you can discover the source of the title. It’s in this review. Highly recommended for an amusing break from current events.

Shelf Talker: Like a modern-day, snarky, woke P.G. Wodehouse, this hilarious story will delight any reader who loves the ways the English language can be made to amuse. There’s even some socially and environmentally conscious commentary here, tucked in between the crazy funny scenes.