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Kirby Gann’s Our Napoleon in Rags

January 8, 2009 by · No comments

Joan Gumbs

Photo: alicepopkorn

According to Ig Publisher, publishers of Our Napoleon in Rags, Kirby Gann’s novel is a “biting commentary on contemporary America.” Argumentative. Whose commentary is it? Certainly not Gann’s, who, in an interview with Bob Williams from The Compulsive Reader declared, “There’s no specific ‘message’ the novel is trying to put across to the reader….Novels that claim to have answers tend to be bad ones.”

Having read Our Napoleon in Rags twice, I know it’s not a bad one. So, if the commentary is not coming from the author, who is it coming from? The narrator? Surely not.

This all-knowing narrator we discovered at the end of the novel is no other than Lambret Dillinger, the male child prostitute, who is discovered by the protagonist, Haycraft Keebler, and joins the motley crew at the Don Quixote bar. Think Cheers. Dellinger is now married with children, and has exchanged his name.

Instead, I find Our Napoleon in Rags to be a character-driven story exploring how people in the midst of adversities, and despite the circumstances of their birth, can find the courage to show compassion to one another.

Yes, there are the “hot button issues of mental illness, homosexuality, police violence and racism,” but Gann’s intention was not to raise issues, but “to raise questions about what sort of commitments should we make to our community….What do we owe one another?”

Haycraft Keebler, the main character, thought he could change the world. Correction. According to the narrator, “Hay knew he could transform the world….One kind act at a time (5). He spent ninety-five minutes every day with the “homeless men who played chess…near the library, offering them bananas and squash, an assortment of nuts” (7).

What bothered Hay in general was the “disappearing middle class, the widening gap between the very rich and the very poor” (27). He also found the local police force unnecessarily violent and intimidating. “Alone and obscure, he responded by loving everyone in the abstract.” Hay was born in a privileged lifestyle.

His father was the mayor of Montreux before corruption charges forced the family to flee to Tennessee. Perhaps it was for this reason that Hay worked so hard to help others. Hay strove for “a neighborly, self-sufficiency community” (58). Hay is our Napoleon in Rags, “a moniker [he]…quietly cherishes, using the title to sign his notebooks” (45).

Glenda Stiles, co-owner of The Don Q, “made herself a kind of patron to [Hay and] Mather Williams, a gentle but damaged soul,” (11) whose illustrations later “graced the covers of CDs of local bands” (208). Glenda’s husband, Beau, played the cello with Hay’s father when he was alive. They watched Hay grew up and felt responsible for him.

If Glenda did not see Hay in a few days, she would go by his house to make sure he was okay. “You’re only allowed to sulk a few days,” she tells Hay. “Then you return to where I can see you” (123). Sometimes the weight of looking after her charges became unbearable. But she persisted.

Romeo Diaz, a self-proclaimed Atheist, who didn’t believe in anything—his motto was each man for himself—became the caretaker for Mather when he, Diaz, became involved with Anantha Bliss, a stripper who later became an Internet porn star. Bliss’ kind spirit brings out the best in Diaz.

Soon, he finds himself caring and is not sure what to do with these new found feelings. As Hay pointed out to him, “See how you’ve grown from indifference and sense of victimless crimes to the caretaking of a sweet and simple soul [?]” (135).

When three cops cornered and frightened Mather, it was Romeo who rushed to his defense and acted as a shield between the cops and Mather. “He told Mather that everything was alright…that he would take care of everything” (119); to which Mather acquiesced and became less agitated.

Finally, nowhere is the sense of community felt the strongest than in Hay’s speech to Lambret after the riot, when Hay suggested to Lambret that they should do something because “they owed Beau and Glenda something”; to which Lambret asked, “What [you] meant by we?”

Hay’s response was, “It’s a mistake to bother with separations into we and they, when the most applicable point of view would be…us. It’s not so difficult to imagine yourself in the roles of others” (103-104). Maybe it is a biting commentary, after all.

Works Cited

Gann, Kirby. Our Napoleon in Rags. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 2005.
Gann, Kirby. Interview. 2005.

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