The popular account of Vincent van Gogh’s suicide claims the troubled painter wandered into a field, shot himself with a revolver and then limped home to seek treatment. But that makes “no sense” to comic writer Christopher Moore. So he kicks off his bawdy new novel, “Sacre Bleu,” with a characteristically zany version of his own.
Vincent is painting in a field when “a twisted little man” known as the Colorman steps out of the corn and demands a painting: “The picture, Dutchman, or no more blue for you.” An argument ensues, and the Colorman’s revolver goes off, shooting Vincent in the chest. He dies later, but not before warning his brother, Theo, to hide the painting. “Keep her from him,” Vincent begs. “The little man.”
Watching that mystery unfold is part of the fun in “Sacre Bleu.” From that opening scene, the novel leaps to the bakery of young Lucien Lessard, an aspiring painter living in Montmartre. When Lucien gets word of Vincent’s death, he sprints to tell his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and they set out on a delightfully ribald romp to figure out exactly what happened to van Gogh.
The two make for a splendid dynamic duo. Lucien is a starry-eyed romantic for whom stories about famous paintings “were the fairy tales of his childhood,” while Toulouse-Lautrec, when he’s not with a French prostitute, is an unfailingly loyal comic hero. Late in the novel, Moore captures their relationship perfectly when Lucien awakes from a trance on the floor, finding himself face-to-face with his partner. “Why are you lying on the floor?” Lucien asks. “Solidarity,” Toulouse-Lautrec says. “And we ran out of cognac. This is my preferred out of cognac posture.”
Moore’s work has tended to fall into what one critic called the “zonked-out comic horror” category, but “Sacre Bleu” is different. Let’s call it a historical comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy. There’s even a soupcon of art criticism along with a number of color reproductions of famous paintings. For example, when Lucien sees Diego Velazquez’s “Venus at Her Mirror,” he comments, “She was a beauty to be sure, and because she was looking at you looking at her, in a mirror held by a cherub, there was just the slightest feeling of naughtiness, the voyeur exposed.”
Moore says that “the possibilities absolutely explode” when you set a novel in late 19th-century France, and he takes full advantage of them here. Renoir, Monet and all the great artists of the period make appearances, as does Oscar Wilde, whom Moore uses at the end of “Sacre Bleu” to take a final, knowing jab at scribblers everywhere. “Write, write, write, Oscar,” Toulouse-Lautrec says, “it’s what men do when they can’t make real art.”
Wilwol is a writer living in Washington.
On Monday, Christopher Moore will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919.
A Comedy d’Art
By Christopher Moore
Morrow. 403 pp. $26.99