With a dozen novels, short stories, and essays to his name, Jean-Paul Dubois has created a profoundly human body of work inspired by his experience in America, where he worked as a correspondent for Le Nouvel Observateur for 15 years. His latest novel, Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, won France’s top literary honor, the Goncourt Prize, on November 4.
Jean-Paul Dubois fled the Parisian literary scene back to his home city of Toulouse, and rarely gives interviews. When talking about his novels, which he publishes once every three or four years, he is talkative, generous, and constantly apologizes for his digressions.
For the last 15 years or so, every one of his male protagonists has been called Paul. They are all restless, occasionally suicidal, and perceive the world as if from the side of a road. “I always tell the story of a guy who cannot stand authority and who refuses to impose it on anyone. For me, each narrator is the same, with the same voice and psychological profile. Only the last names of my protagonists change, so I can kill them off,” he says, in a nod to Rabbit, the recurring lead in the novels of John Updike, whom he admires deeply.
Dubois’ latest novel, Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, is set between Toulouse and Canada, and tells the tale of Paul Hansen, the son of a Danish pastor who works in a retirement home for the wealthy. Imprisoned in a Montreal jail for a crime we only discover at the end of the book, he shares his cell with a Hells Angels biker as endearing as he is sinister. While incarcerated, he remembers his past, from his childhood to his relationship with a Native American woman who happens to be a pilot.
As is often the case with the author, the main themes include mourning, family ties, male friendships, and heartbreaking love for a woman lost. This beautiful novel about injustice, driven by Dubois’ humor and cinematic writing, also features the writer’s penchant for wide open spaces, and his obsession with death and lawn mowers.
Born in Toulouse in 1950, Dubois first worked as a sports journalist for regional newspaper Sud-Ouest. He then wrote about the courts and cinema for Le Matin de Paris before becoming an American correspondent for Le Nouvel Observateur. He crisscrossed the United States from the early 1990s through 2001, sleeping in rundown motels and frequenting bars, churches, and death rows. He was a silent visitor in the “only zoo on Earth to allow such a variety of exotic individuals with toxic, twisted ideas to roam and wander free,” as he wrote in L’Amérique m’inquiète (2017), a collection of his U.S. articles, that form an essential read for understanding the country that elected Donald Trump.
Whether they portray inequalities in the healthcare system, the daily lives of the homeless in Las Vegas, or the slow agony of death-row inmates on a faulty electric chair, the essays hold up a mirror to an America mainlining religion and morality. A country in which everything has a price, from acres of land on the moon and phone sex in the desert to life insurance policies for people with AIDS bought for next to nothing by speculators.
While Dubois’ biggest success (and only work published in English), A French Life, which also won the 2004 Prix Femina) is set exclusively in France and follows the history of the Fifth Republic, his experience in America offers an endless source of inspiration for fiction. This is seen in Les accommodements raisonnables, in which a depressive screenwriter is hired by a Hollywood studio, and in La Succession, partly set among professional Basque pelota players in Miami, with one character based on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the inventor of a euthanasia device. “These years made me understand that the world runs on madness and absurdity,” says the novelist, who spent 20 years listening to the beating of America’s “blind and brutal heart.”
=> Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, by Jean-Paul Dubois, Editions de l’Olivier, 2019. 256 pages, 19 euros.
Article published in the August 2019 issue of France-Amérique