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The International Writers Magazine
: A Charleie Dickinson Review

HAPPY DAYS by Laurent Graff
English translation from the French by Linda Coverdale
Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004, 101 pp.
ISBN: 0-7867-1282-1

HAPPY DAYS by Laurent Graff is a wisp of a novel at 99 pages of story, but be warned, this is one big-hearted book. As we say in the library reader advisory biz, if you liked cult classic film HAROLD AND MAUDE by the late Colin Higgins (screenwriter and director), you'll love HAPPY DAYS.

Set in contemporary France, we meet protagonist Antoine, who, with the resolve of an unshakable fatalist, decides at age eighteen to splurge the life savings his parents built up during his childhood. He buys outright his tombstone and a burial plot on which to have it set. Date of death, for inscription purposes, to follow. You might say Antoine is deadly serious about what life will finally bring his way.
Between visits to his future grave, Antoine does manage to marry and to have children. At age thirty-five, however, a long-forgotten godfather bestows a large inheritance on our fatalistic hero. Antoine decides to go live in a retirement home among geriatics. Soon, he's also soon divorced.

A crazy, lovable premise with obvious similarities to Colin Higgins' "what-iffing" about young, wealthy Harold falling in love with much, much older Maude. To be fair, Mr. Graff may or may not be aware of HAROLD AND MAUDE. What is true, according to the book's flap copy, Mr. Graff is only thirty-five, father of two children, and a widower.

One is tempted to indulge in a bit of an existentialist critique (which is to say, facts of a writer's life are not irrelevant to an understanding of a writer's art). Such a personal tragedy, no doubt, gave Mr. Graff a keen sense of Antoine's initial stance about life: What else does life offer? And yet, the joy of HAPPY DAYS is that Mr. Graff remakes Antoine's passive endurance with something that could be taken for--Is it?--zest. HAPPY DAYS is obviously about meeting the Grim Reaper. In this, his first novel to be published in English, Graff has managed to bring a light touch, without being superficial or insensitive, to a subject fascinating writers for ages. His goofy premise--young man beelines to the old folks home--when told in understated, clear-eyed prose, summons poignancy, without yielding to the tempting, easy laugh. Graff brings exceptional control to his theme and some of the last scenes in the novel, where Death stops by, are well played out against the western sky of an Atlantic Ocean seascape, in the dark of night, with the wintry cold bringing down snowflakes looking "for a place to land." All unambiguous symbolism, yet at story's end, still powerful stuff.

A tale with real heft, presented in a small package. Set aside an evening to savor HAPPY DAYS in one sitting.

© Charlie Dickinson Feb 2004
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