SACRE BLEU: A COMEDY D’ART by Christopher Moore

The story starts in July 1890 in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, and surrounds the mysterious suicide of Vincent van Gogh, who famously shot himself in a French wheat field only  to walk a mile to a doctor’s house.

Or did he?

The mystery, which is slowly but cleverly revealed through the course of the book, is blue:  specifically the exclusive ultramarine pigment that accents pictures created by the likes of Michelangelo and van Gogh.

So begins another exceedingly bizarre, often raucous, and consistently delightful journey into the sweetly demented mind of novelist Christopher Moore.

A few globs of horror, a dollop of humor, a tincture of the supernatural, and a robust measure of Chaucerian bawdiness flavor his newest work, a “Comedy d’art” set in Paris at the end of the 19th century.

Christopher Moore is a very talented supernatural comic novelist, but I’ve always thought he’s maddeningly hit-or-miss. No question but that the writer of such comic horror classics as The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (what would happen if a whole town were taken off antidepressants and threatened by a shape-changing prehistoric sea beast?) and Fool (as in King Lear’s buddy) is an acquired taste.

Throughout the course of pretty much all of his novels, readers are likely asking themselves: Am I crazy? Or is he?

Those comfortable finding no good answer to such questions are going to appreciate Moore’s latest and best to date , in which innocence and experience, friendship and malevolence, lust and love battle for supremacy in the cafes and salons of fin de siècle France.

Without even reading a single sentence in this book, you still could see from the way it’s packaged that this time out, Mr. Moore were going for different and way better. From the cover art with half-wraparound to the end pieces (a map of Paris’ monuments) to the way the book is cut (rough, but not too rough) to the fonts to the beautiful full-color reproductions of historical paintings sprinkled throughout the text, this is designed to wow you, and it succeeds.

In the “prelude,” Mr. Moore writes, “This is a story about the color blue. It may dodge and weave, hide and deceive, take you down paths of love and history and inspiration, but it’s always about blue.” So, what is blue? “Blue is glory and power, a wave, a particle, a vibration, a resonance, a spirit, a passion, a memory, a vanity, a metaphor, a dream. Blue is a simile. Blue, she is like a woman.” And, as a woman, she is deadly.

The two “buddies” who try to make heads or pineapples of van Gogh’s death are Lucien Lessard (Moore’s own invented character), a baker and aspiring artist, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (the famous painter of the Moulin Rouge), a lovable lush of a painter “out to bite the ass of the devil before he’s done.”

Lessard is a great character, a lovesick everyman, here to introduce us to the world of Parisian artists and plumb the depths of just what a muse means to a man.

After van Gogh’s death, Lucien joins up with the diminutive force of nature Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to track down the inspiration behind the Sacré Bleu. In the shadows, lurking for centuries, is a perverse paint dealer dubbed The Colorman, who tempts the world’s great artists with his unique hues and a mysterious female companion who brings revelation—and often syphilis (it is Moore, after all). Into the palette, Moore throws a dizzying array of characters, all expertly portrayed, from the oft-drunk “little gentleman” to a host of artists including Édouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Moore’s humor is, as ever, sweetly juvenile, but his arty comedy also captures the courage and rebellion of the Impressionists with an exultant joie de vivre.

A warning label for younger readers: This novel is thoroughly French.

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