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According to novelist Ron Hansen, what the world needs now is a little screwball comedy. That's just what he's delivered, too: Hansen's new sliver of a book, Isn't It Romantic? An Entertainment, is intended as a sweet tribute to screwball auteur Preston Sturges, but it's also pure Hansen. The tome features sharpshooting prose sprinkled with observations dredged from the author's Nebraska roots. In it, traveling Parisians Natalie and Pierre step off a Greyhound bus to find themselves stranded in the town of Seldom, Nebraska, population: 395. From there, the resulting comedy of culture shock and errors never misses a punchline.

"I wrote it to cheer myself up, and everybody else in the world," Hansen says of his comic detour. "I'd always admired Preston Sturges, so it was a challenge to myself to see if I could pull it off as well as he did." And he was, believe it or not, at least partially inspired by a personal experience more pointed than his own familiarity with the Nebraska lifestyle: "I was on a Greyhound bus to western Nebraska when my car broke down. There was a French couple on that bus, they seemed to be bickering, they didn't speak much English, and they obviously had no idea what a terrible idea it really was to cross America in a bus."

That's where the giddy Sturges spirit enters: "There was never any grudge in his work, never any sense of the villains being villains because they're truly evil," Hansen reflects. That taken, small-town Nebraska couldn't have provided a better setting for such a couple's middle-American embrace. "The best part of American culture is its good nature, the willingness to take in strangers, to be friendly to people," he adds. "In Nebraska, you sometimes feel like you've walked into a Walt Disney set; it's so wholesome." It's a running joke crying to get out, this thematic je ne sais quois in which Continental sophistication and New World mediocrity collide. How the Frenchies and Cornhuskers ultimately interact and slowly melt together under those circumstances is yours to find out. But trust Hansen, you will feel better about the world when it's over.

Ron Hansen reads from and signs Isn't It Romantic? at 7:30 p.m. January 30, at the Tattered Cover, 2955 East First Avenue; call 303-322-7727 for details.


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