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Waiting for Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut

Published in France in 2015; published in translation by Simon & Schuster on March 19, 2019

Waiting for Bojangles is a whimsical celebration of living, of crazy love, and of “Mr. Bojangles,” the Jerry Jeff Walker song that so perfectly captures the grief and joy that defines a life. The narrator’s family dances every day to Nina Simone’s rendition of the song, sometimes forgetting to eat, often with the guests who fill their rooms above a grocery store or their vacation castle in Spain, joined by their pet crane, Mr. Superfluous.

Most of the story is told by a son who describes growing up with eccentric parents and the lascivious senator who lived with them. His father George gives his mother a new name every day, Yvonne or Hortense or whatever suits him; his mother gives her son a freshly scented glove every day so that her hand will always guide him. Occasional passages appear from George’s notebooks, giving the reader a slightly different perspective of the family.

The mother has taught her son to believe that “etiquette was the main guardrail in life” and “a lack of manners put you at other people’s mercy.” She believes that “aesthetic balance” is more important than conventional education, so the son misses school when the almond trees come into bloom. Conflicts with teachers lead to his early retirement from school, giving Olivier Bourdeaut an opportunity to explore creative ideas for home schooling, all of which are more fun than being ridiculed by a teacher for having been instilled with an unconventional view of life by a mother who “thumbs her nose at reality.”

Waiting for Bojangles is in part a love story, a story of enduring devotion. The family never opens its mail, which leads both to freedom and tax debt. It is the latter that triggers even more bizarre behavior in the narrator’s mother, such as a nude stroll to the grocer for mussels. George frets that she is losing her mind and doesn’t know where to find it. Yet George knows he cannot live without her love, and if it is crazy love, “that craziness belongs to me, too.”

The characters are eccentric because they make it a point to enjoy life and don’t much care how they are judged. Bourdeaut’s writing style is as whimsical as the story, featuring a random rhyming scheme. For example: “The object of my dread has now hit us in the head, along with fire and brimstone, right in our own home.” Some of the rhymes are forced, but that might be an artifact of translation.

The story, like the song “Mr. Bojangles,” is both happy and sad, the sadness deriving from the realization that someone as joyful as the mother is not equipped to live in a society that prefers to medicate the mentally ill until they have no personality rather than tolerating a personality that cannot easily be understood. Yet mental illness takes a toll on families and the novel does not pretend otherwise. The story’s lesson, I think, is that joy and sorrow are inseparable, that both are fundamental to life.

The book, like the song and like life, is short. Waiting for Bojangles reminds us to embrace joy while we can during a life that will end too soon. The story is such a joy to read that the importance of its message might be lost in the laughter.


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