In Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, the narrator Pierre, affectionately known as Pierrounet, is a veteran bartender in the Parisian suburb of Asnières. He is fifty-six and has worked at Le Cercle bistro for 30 years. He spends his days watching people rush to and from the train station, serving his customers, empathizing with them and even, at times, emulating them – a young man in black broods over a beer and Primo Levi and Pierre attempts to read If This Is a Man at home just “to keep up on things.”
Fabre, a prolific author in his native France, makes his U.S. debut with this brief, beguiling tale about the life of an ordinary bartender. Yet, as Pierre slowly tells his own story in between shifts at the bar, spats with his moody boss, and dealings with new hires and café regulars, the simple, intimate details assume true significance.
Pierre interacts with a bevy of fluid characters, authentic for their universality. They experience the same daily routines as everyone else, peppered with moments of triumph, disappointment, and unforeseen strength: the new waitress Madeleine learns the ropes of Le Cercle, the talented Senegalese cook Amédée is frustrated with the café’s inadequate facilities, the disgruntled boss Henri is dallying with one of the waitresses, and the boss’s wife Isabelle turns to Pierre for solace. In turn, Pierre grapples with getting older and the fact that he may never date again, having been married for eight years but divorced for even longer. The narrative appears simplistic on the surface, but a closer reading unravels the fragile essence of humanity with its unending complexities of love and friendship and the bittersweet realities of aging and loneliness. Fabre’s spare, measured prose (translated by Jordan Stump) paints a vivid portrait of everyday life.
Toward the novel’s close, Pierre reflects on his encounters with the young man in black:
What was he going to make of his life? Would he have the strength for it all? Or maybe he’d quietly while it away reading hundreds of books in a bunch of different bars, and he’d be happy that way. I would have liked to tell him that, but it had come to me too late, obviously. In all this time he’d been coming to waste his days at Le Cercle, I’d never once found a chance for a real conversation with him. Although. Obviously, I’m no Monsieur Primo Levi.
Throughout this lyrical, elegant slice of life, Pierre’s astute, poignant voice strikes the heart again and again. The beauty is truly rendered in the details.