Mix up Mad Men, Russian folklore, James Bond, An American in Paris, Gorky Park and maybe a hint of Franz Kafka, and you get something like, well, this decidedly odd and most entertaining sophomore novel by Barlow (Sharp Teeth, 2008).
Will Van Wyck is anything but an ugly American, but he’s a bit at sea in the City of Lights. An adman par excellence back home, he’s been slowly stripped of his accounts, ignored at brainstorming sessions where his French counterparts are hopping about to jingles of “Chase your pimples away. Chase your pimples away.” But pimples dissolve, and so do mortals, in the face of the supernatural, as represented by the dazzling, chest-heaving Zoya, whose lover wonders how it is that she manages to stay so young; she hasn’t changed a day since the liberation—or, for that matter, since the Franco-Prussian War, for all we know. Zoya’s got the zazzle of immortality thanks to being turned by a resourceful and oftentimes very bad witch named Elga, who turns up in the story just when mischief is needed, as when said lover winds up in the great beyond and a police detective makes his way to her door, only to be turned into a flea for his troubles. Naturally, Will meets Zoya. Naturally, she puts the zap on him: “There was an essence to her gaze—the way her eyes connected with his—that took the simplest words in his mind and effortlessly broke them down into small, useless heaps of letters.” Meanwhile, Will’s best pal in Paris turns out to be a CIA spook, and there’s all kinds of hijinks to be had there, as, undeterred, Inspector Vidot tours the demimondes of Paris by hitching rides on mangy critters, and Zoya stays a step ahead of the law, the KGB and everyone else who’s got an interest in her wiles. Barlow’s story is goofy, wholly original and a lot of fun, and he ably captures the feel of both the gray 1950s and free-spirited France.
Great reading for a flight to Paris. Just stay away from witches, bathtubs and maybe the Metro once you get there—oh, and spooks, too.