Picture a rundown, rain-soaked Parisian café called Le Cercle. It’s the kind of place people “come in to get out of the weather, they have a drink, and they go on their way.” The glasses are thickly cut and the ashtrays display the names of French aperitifs. The owner smokes a cigarillo in the morning and worries about his health.
“That week he was scowling more or less full time,” says Pierre, the 54-year-old veteran bar-tender who narrates this world to life. Step into it and you pretty much know this restaurant is about to unravel.
It’s not a dramatic unraveling, but a sad, slow leave-taking that forms the wounded heart of Dominique Fabre’s beguiling little novel, which is elegantly translated by Jordan Stump.
If Barry Levinson’s “Diner” could be said to have a French literary equivalent, this might be it. Here is the world of a French café turned inside out by a hugely empathic bar-tender who doesn’t miss a thing which goes on around him. Fabre gives Pierre a fabulously realized voice, gravened by loss and softened by routine into something lived in and real-seeming.
The mixture of Pierre’s hugely likable voice and the acute melancholy of his observations lends “The Waitress Was New” the peculiar mystery and vividness of lived experience. Pierre directs our eyes, camera-like, around the room, and points out the young man who comes in and reads Primo Levi. He talks about listening to a thrice-married wealthy customer, who goes on a bender from time to time. “I listen while he throws out sentences that don’t always know where they’re going.” Other nights the man undresses and tries to throw himself into the Seine.
Quietly, however, Fabre makes it clear that Pierre is in fact as desperate as his customers, even the owner, whose affair with a waitress is partly the reason why this ship is going down. When it does, Pierre, who has been at this job since he was 19, floats free, adrift in Paris, with no human barrier to the intense loneliness that clings to him like a wet coat. At least when there were lovers ruining their lives, young couples camped out at back tables, the pinched contours of his life remained obscured. He was part of something, simply by being there so long people took him for granted.
This could be a maudlin story, or a self-pitying one, but Fabre has such a light touch, so many keen, but easily worn observations to make about urban life, that “The Waitress Was New” never becomes that kind of book. Instead, it is in fact perhaps the perfect Valentine’ Day read, a book for the other half of the world that spends this made-up holiday alone.
“They’re you’re equals,” Pierre says, of the people who pass and pass, and pass through his life. “They’ll leave you a tip on their way out, but whatever they’ve left hanging in their lives hasn’t budged a bit.”
The same goes for the narrator of this mesmerizing, true little book.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.