Gene Wilder. For me, the name conjures up sounds and images from the movie Young Frankenstein--a classic comedy from the mid-70s. When a coworker recommended a novella that Wilder had written, I couldn't resist checking it out to see what kind of author he is. Would it be funny, like the movie? Is he any good at writing?
Wilder's 2007 book, My French Whore, is set during World War I. Paul Peachy is a young, somewhat awkward railway worker and amateur actor. When the United States enters the war, he decides to leave his one-sided marriage and enlist in the army; soon he is on his way to France. Peachy was born in the US, but his parents are German immigrants. Since he speaks German fluently, he is selected to talk to a prisoner who was just captured. The prisoner ends up doing most of the interrogating, but ultimately reveals to Peachy that he is a spy named Harry Stroller. Before Peachy can relay this information to his superiors, a battle breaks out and Peachy runs away to save his skin. Just as he is berating himself for cowardice, he is grabbed by a small band of German soldiers and shoved against a tree. The smug German sergeant orders the soldiers to shoot him, but at the last second Peachy's acting skills kick in and he takes charge of the situation by assuming the identity of Harry Stroller. The rest of the book tells the interesting story of how Peachy pulls this off, and how he finds a way to be true to himself in spite of his disguise.
Wilder's writing style is straightforward and his vocabulary is plain, but it seems to fit the personality of Paul Peachy. The story is clever, and Wilder does a good job of including details that bring the characters and countryside to life. It was a quick read, and I enjoyed it very much.
In fact, reading My French Whore made me curious about Gene Wilder himself, so I checked out his autobiography: Kiss Me Like a Stranger. The book was published in 2005 when Wilder was 72 years old. As I read his life story, I could see that several personal facts and anecdotes were woven into My French Whore. One small example is that Paul Peachy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin--just like Jerry Silberman, who grew up to be Gene Wilder.
I was amazed at the breadth of acting experiences Wilder had (beginning at age 13), and his interactions with so many big name celebrities. He is still well-respected in the acting community, and worked hard to get ahead. As he leads us through his life, he is very honest about his actions, feelings, and motives, including his relationship with former Saturday Night Live star, Gilda Radner. Throughout the autobiography he also makes note of those times when a specific occurrence or comment sent his life in a different direction, something I often think about in my own life.
I still associate Gene Wilder with Young Frankenstein, especially now that I know he wrote the script for the movie. In fact, he has written more than one script, and although he no longer acts, he continues to entertain us with his books.
The library has many celebrity biographies and autobiographies, including Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, and Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul by Mark Bego. If you are interested in other works by celebrities, try Shopgirl, a novella by Steve Martin, Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher, or A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffett.
Recommended by Angela Prandini