Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bury My Heart in New Orleans

As soon as my feet hit the streets of New Orleans, I felt a profound sense of belonging. Why, I thought, had it taken me 27 years to visit this city?

I roamed the streets of the French Quarter drinking absinthe, getting into discussions with homeless men, ordering Cajun coffee from women dressed like wenches. I ate a lot of amazing foods that involved meat and olives and fried sea critters. I met a gravedigger who gave me a tour of a half-dozen of the city's cemeteries. We strolled through the wealthiest and most decorated cemetery I'd ever seen, then drove ten minutes away and found one of the poorest and most decrepit ones I’d even seen. Much of it had been washed away by Hurricane Katrina and it was littered with unearthed tombstones, broken headstones, rotten wooden crosses, stray bones, sinkholes, crawfish huts. I roamed around pondering and taking pictures. Then I drank beer on Bourbon Street and moseyed through quirky art shops on Royal Street. Seriously, where else on earth could this happen besides New Orleans?

As a writer, I felt an overwhelming desire to write down what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and felt because it was all so new and exciting. My journal, which I’ve read over several times since visiting the city in April, is filled with lots of personal impressions. I also wanted to read a bit more about New Orleans, specifically what local writers were saying about it. While perusing a book store in the Garden District I came across a "New Orleans" section stocked with all sorts of books. Most focused on Hurricane Katrina, some on the oil spill, others on food and culture. There were a lot of cookbooks. But I did find a fat collection of short stories all written by Louisiana writers. So I picked it up, and it turned out to be a great purchase. These stories are great slices of Louisiana life. I probably would've preferred a book just about New Orleans, but apparently there are other places and people in the state as well. A lot of these stories take place in New Orleans or relate to the city somehow, and I’ll admit that I'm probably biased toward the ones that do.

If you've ever been to New Orleans or are planning on going, pick up this book. The stories in here are moving and powerful, and the writers deserve some serious credit. Below are some brief overviews of the stories that stuck with me the most.

Wide Awake in the Pelican State: Stories by Contemporary Louisiana Writers - Edited by Ann Brewster Dobie

“The Work of Art” – John Biguenet
A New Orleans man sells everything he owns to buy a sculpture of a woman in the tub made by Degas. He is also falling in love with a real-life woman. He’s an obsessive man, one who is all in or not at all. And he’s sure of both his decision to buy the statute and marrying this girl. This is an anti-climactic, slow-paced but insightful love story.

“The Convict” by James Lee Burke is an incredible story set in the 1940s. The narrator is a young white child whose father's sociopolitical views are fifty years ahead of his time. He is a man of honor who can't stand bigotry and hatred and evil prospering. A convict breaks out in town (drama introduced), and the father finds himself helping the convict, a burglar, hide from the authorities. What happens when a man is too helpful and honest for his own good? That’s the theme of this powerful story.

“Crickets” by Robert Olen Butler is the story of a Vietnamese immigrant and his son living in Louisiana. The father wants to teach his son how to make crickets fight, a game the father used to play in Vietnam. Loaded with symbolism, this is both a great immigrant family story and a story about how people from different backgrounds relate to new surroundings.

In “Where She Was” by Kelly Cherry a seventeen-year-old daughter tells the story of her mother’s childhood in Louisiana. The story is short and reflective, offering a kind of voyeuristic journey through this secretive woman’s life.

Ernest Gaines, who wrote the foreword, has the longest story in this collection, aptly titled “A Long Day in November.” And I’m guessing he pulled some strings with the editors and publishers to get this 50-page behemoth in here, because there’s no reason to include this huge piece. It’s narrated by a young boy stuck in the middle of his parents marriage crisis. It’s a mundane and boring story with way too many pages for my taste.

Tim Gautreaux’s “Welding With Children” is an oddly-titled but well-done story. It’s told from the perspective of an old man who is babysitting his four grandchildren all at once. The grandfather holds lingering guilt about not raising his daughters up as well as he could have. But he’s trying to make right by his grandkids. He sits the kids down to tell them Bible stories, which they’ve never heard before. The kids all think the Old Testament is like an action movie. Hilarious and touching, this story is simple yet oddly memorable.

Ellen Gilchrist definitely has the most disturbing story in the collection, “Rich.” A rich Catholic husband and wife in New York seem to have everything going their way. They adopt a child and have children of their own. Maids take care of the kids while they go to country clubs and roam around the Garden District. But things go bad very quickly for this family. Gilchrist has a knack for writing beautifully about terrible occurrences. This story is so well done that it will surely haunt anyone who reads it.

“It Pours” by Tim Parrish is set in the late 1960s. It starts off with a massive rainstorm. The rain, which is getting worse and worse as the ground soaks up all it can, is a metaphor for the increasing American involvement in Vietnam. The weather is bad and getting worse, as is the war. Parrish is a master of craft and this story perfectly weaves the international and historical with the local and personal.

"Brownsville" by Tom Piazza is my favorite story, and it's only two pages. But it's two amazing pages of prose. The book was worth buying for this story alone.

The last two stories by Nancy Richard and James Wilcox are total bores, so the book ends on a bad note. That said, it's still a solid collection.

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