In the memoir An American (Homeless) in Paris, the reader is invited to la mansion of author Chris Ames, a tent pitched atop an abandoned golf course overlooking the bourgeois center of Paris. Having returned from a sabbatical year of travel after being extricated from French domesticity as a result of divorce the year before, Ames lives in this tent as he tries to find, often through resistance of convention, his place again within Parisian society and within the world.
We are immediately introduced to Ames’ juxtaposition of the ordinary with the unconventional and unexpected in the structure of the book itself. Each of its 12 chapters (one for each month Ames lived at his manor) opens by taking us back to Ames’ prior travels in the East. In Rangoon, Myanmar, on Ames’ final night abroad before returning to Paris, we meet one of Ames’ many spiritual teachers from the previous year, a monk insistent that Ames not sleep because he does not need not “all those hours out of consciousness,” but rather needs “them for being conscious.”
Scenes from his wandering and seeking serve as foundations of each chapter and cue the reader into understanding that Ames’ choice of homelessness is more than a money-saving tactic. Rather, his tent above the golf course is an extension of his earlier explorations into what gives meaning and value to a life.
Winner of the Utah Original Writing Competition in nonfiction, An American (Homeless) in Paris follows and unfolds to the rhythm of the seasons as Ames experiences them. Just as the winter months of November, December and January, in their snowy dormancy slow, the early chapters are unhurried as Ames settles into and considers the state of simple, empty living. Of his first morning at the manor, Ames writes:
What domestic bliss! O tiny Chilean mess kit, o tin cup, an extra one should a guest show up. O fork, knife, and spoon, you too coupling there with a tin plate, a pan for crepes. … Do the essentials of a kitchen make for a home?”
Existing in this liminal space of rooted homelessness, Ames also vacillates between being outside and within society. Working and earning a living as an English teacher at a university and with private clients, Ames remains tethered to cultural expectation. And yet, the author never really resides here. Only half present with a student, Denis, Ames admits that he:
Let my mind wander outside to where the cold just seemed to be getting more and more bitter. Gotta get used to it. One can get used to anything: the heat, the cold, homelessness. It’s just a question of stepping outside yourself and looking in or, in my particular case, of stepping inside and looking out.
Come February, we are comfortably inside Ames’ mind, looking out through his eyes and onto the world. Within stream of consciousness-styled passages, the reader sees how the internal months of cold and reflection have worked their way into him, bringing an anticipation for spring and what grows out of a time of dormancy.
More than anything, I’ve got those planks of Buddhism and its idea that I am nothing really, an illusion that should be enjoyed and learned from. It’s certainly humbling, having nothing much, and ultimately it’s good to not want all that much either, except to love and hope, and in the meantime, keep my head on straight and eat right and sleep warm despite these cold nights, and dream of spring and all the good things that make being alive such a treat to me.
Spring and April soon do arrive and with them growth. Abundance and outward energy in both Ames’ physical and social landscapes bring “a glut of cherry blossoms and hot rabbits, succulence and wanton greenery” and “a number [I] hadn’t called in a year or more, or hadn’t called me.” Throughout April, May and June, Ames begins acquiring: an old lover who in Ames’ words “didn’t want me for my heart, just my body, my seed”; items of comfort to furnish his manor (a mattress, rugs, a table with an umbrella); a new lover who leaves Ames thirsting for emotional connection. It is, as Ames tells this story – at times shockingly honestly – about his crude desires that we see how the fulfillment of one type of bodily yearning opens the door for him to want other homey comforts.
Ames cannot keep pace (or doesn’t want to) with this vitality, and so he relaxes, it seems, perhaps out of necessity, with the constraint of summer heat. Sliding into the repose granted by summer to family rhythms, Ames plans a vacation for himself and his children (who still reside with their mother) along with his sister and her family. Hosting these sincere loved ones for a barbeque at his abode, it is as though Ames is truly content for the first time. Seeing his children sitting around the fire, the reader hears a deeper, more contemplative voice, absent in spring and early summer’s almost frenzied pages:
I couldn’t deprive them of [the fire’s] beauty, each one different, always changing, evolving, nourished on the food of wood. To make a human metaphor of it would be too simple, for we are all mysteries, burning bright without even being aware of it, lighting up others’ lives, in the case of our cricket, calling out for someone who has remained hidden. Perhaps there was no one and all of this was some kind of illusion, and we were locked in ourselves, only pretending to communicate with the fiddles of our voices, only pretending to evolve into more enlightened beings, only pretending to make a home of a house, or for that matter, only pretending to be homeless.
And so, the year’s life and energy receding alongside fall, the anniversary of Ames’ year of homelessness in Paris approaching, the memoirist and the reader cycle back to early questions.
What of our world is merely illusion? What is of consequence to fill the space vacated in relinquishing? What is home? What possibility and freedom come from having nothing?
In response, Ames gives the reader a hint when he writes, “It came down to choice, to having a choice and making that choice.”
An American (Homeless) in Paris
University of Utah Press, 2017
$24.95, 147 pp
Emily James is a master’s candidate in literature and writing at Utah State University with an emphasis in creative nonfiction.