"I could never live in a place where I couldn't get decent olives," an academic friend once told me, her mouth pursing at the thought of a life devoid of such delicacies. She was, in fact, islanded in a Southern college town with a lone Greek market that struggled to make its rent in a run-down plaza, but I think she preferred it that way. Her strict tastes defined her against the fluorescent horizon of Krispy Kreme shops. She liked olives. They liked doughnuts. In a cosmopolitan place, she would have been the same as everyone else.
To read award-winning local author Joe Ashby Porter's Resident Aliens is to enter a community of similarly isolated sophisticates. His main characters, journalist Irene and her professor husband Jean-Luc, are French and they get thrown together in 1970s Charlottesville, Va., with two Canadians: Chantal, a graduate student, and Mouse, an Oneida Quebecoise. Irene and Jean-Luc speak with the formal phrasing of those for whom English will always be a second language. Their dialogue seems almost written rather than uttered aloud, like they are continually composing small treatises to one another: "It's as if the faculty has agreed to solve the problem by contriving ingenious approaches that accommodate garbling and misunderstanding," says Irene, concluding, "You know?" And of course, Jean-Luc does.
Such verbally (and, we find out, sexually) sophisticated characters are embodiments of the French concept of wit, which is closer to competition than comedy in its high-court underpinnings. Unlike humor, a thoroughly American virtue, wit never demeans its performer for the sake of a laugh. It's not about being funnier than the next guy so much as it's about being oh-so-subtly smarter. Resident Aliens oozes this superior intellect, and is devoutly French despite its setting. For these reasons, it will not appeal to many readers, but is certain to be loved by a select few. Even the food seems tantalizingly inaccessible, except to the characters. "Irene kept tonight's [meal] comparatively simple--a saucisson d'Arles, and then moule mariniere, then a gigot with flageolets, a salad and then cheeses," Porter writes, as if to reassure the olive-eaters among us that for some, such feasts can always be found.