Wednesday, September 16


An Explosively Funny, Mostly True Story
by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer
illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Simon & Schuster 2008

I had such great hopes for this story, but in the end the book fails me due to a pair of fatal miscalculations.

The story of the Joseph Pujol, known also as Le Petomane, is a natural for kids though perhaps mostly boys. we are talking about a man whose notoriety and (yes) fame came from his ability to control his lower abdominal muscles in such a way that she could produce, on demand, posterior winds to such effect that he could "whistle" tunes and perform feats of skill.

The man could fart. On command, with precisions, and with such control as to be able to play recognizable tunes. And he did it on stage for paying customers.

This alone is enough to attract a readership, and Pujol's story is a fascinating one to tell, which is why it is odd that the authors decided the book needed to be told in rhyme. This is it's first great mistake, because in choosing to make the story fit its rhyme scheme detracts from the impact. When Pujol makes his way to the stage of the Moulin Rouge for his debut we get this set of verses:

Up on the stage was this tall dashing guy–
Long red coat with tails, white shirt and a tie.
His black satin pants had a very strange shape,
With a hole in the back for the air to escape.

Solemn and calm, not a sign of stage fright,
Joe fired off noises most impolite
Announcing a sound, with a face oh so serious,
Performing it straightaway – Mysterious! Delirious!

Somewhat clever, if flawed, the verse sells the audience short by falling back on rhyme to make an already interesting story seem more interesting. Its as if the authors were afraid that telling the story seriously would somehow turn away an audience. Comedy is a very serious business, and this act is a novelty that is all the more funny for the seriousness with which it was presented to people – on a stage, in front of the well-dressed, treated as a true talent – loses its humor to cloying rhymes.

The second miscalculation comes in the end notes. Now typical of picture book biographies, the authors give a full accounting of Pujol's life as a way of perhaps legitimizing the story they have just presented. The problem here is that the straightforward narrative is far more interesting than the book's actual text. It would have been a much better book, to my thinking, to have illustrated the details in the end notes that were left out of the story. The origin of his nickname, for example, or the true story about how he discovered his talents rather than the oblique and slightly deceptive version that opens the book.

Both miscalculations I think condescend and it is unfortunate because otherwise I think this could have been a great book. It's a natural (or unnatural as the case may be) subject of interest for readers and sad to see it treated so poorly.
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