It’s been said that if the city of Dublin were wiped off the map tomorrow, it could be reconstructed, brick by brick and Georgian doorway by doorway, from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Though New Orleans’ most symbolically important structures—St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Pontalba apartments, the Quarter’s lacework balconies—withstood Katrina, the primary pictures of New Orleans in everyone’s mind just now are those that depict the truly incomprehensible human suffering that has taken place within its landscape, not to mention the filthy water that environmentalists have warned for years would be created if the city ever flooded, its petrochemical industry contributing to the mess of muddy water and raw sewage to create a toxic gumbo.
That various governmental agencies may well have created the worst part of the disaster—a Category 5 catastrophe—seems to have come to the news media as a great surprise, after the relatively efficient way humans were rescued, bodies were recovered, and aid was channeled in the days following the World Trade Center bombings. The scenes in New Orleans of looters and lawlessness, as well as the horrific tales of rapes and murders going on inside the Superdome and Convention Center, shouldn’t have come as any shock to those whose favorite city in the world is also one of the most dangerous. In fact, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta seem to vie every year for the title of “American city with the highest murder rate.” Historically, New Orleans has always racked up a hefty score.
Nevertheless, for lovers of New Orleans, for its residents spiritual and actual, one of the most awe-full horrors is that their city, no matter how well rebuilt, will never be the same. And, of course, not all of it will be rebuilt. A city too poor, especially after Federal cutbacks to its flood and levee programs, to afford more than 1,500 policemen to protect its not-quite-half-a-million citizens—most of those policemen concentrated, as they always are, in the wealthier neighborhoods and in the Quarter, to make the tourists feel relatively safe—will have little spare cash for aesthetics. And this in a non-Protestant, even temperamentally non-American city where the metaphysical, incarnational aspects of material beauty are as much a part of life as the omnipresent dead and their graceful raised crypts.
Indeed, who knows how will we raise and rebuild a New Orleans of the mind, brick by brick? Through movies, of course: Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Panic in the Streets; WUSA, based on Robert Stone’s powerful novel Hall of Mirrors; The Big Easy; and the underknown Heaven’s Prisoners come immediately to mind. But for many, that rebuilding will come primarily through the images from books by New Orleans’ best genii loci.
We’ll have Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, set in the Quarter, and many other works by Tennessee Williams, who wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there. We’ll have Walker Percy’s spiritual suburban wasteland, Gentilly, along with his own views of the Vieux Carré in The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. We’ll have the hot dogs and hilarity of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a book whose national appeal would never have been predicted, except perhaps by the Tarot readers in Jackson Square, during the years between his suicide and the book’s appearance in 1980. That appearance was due solely to the tireless efforts of Toole’s eccentric, flamboyant, and from all accounts maddeningly perseverant mother; and to the generosity of Percy himself, who wrote the foreword for the first edition and, it is said, did a great deal of the editing himself.
Less well-known are the writers of the past 20 years, especially those who have grappled unflinchingly with the city’s rigid, ugly, and continuing bigotry, worse than anyone in America could have guessed until the murderous debacles of the Third Ward, the Superdome, and, perhaps most ghastly of all, the Convention Center. The life-constricting, nearly antebellum sexism that remains part of New Orleans’ color-and-caste system—in all its aristocratic settings, from Galatoire’s to the Boston Club to the houses of the Garden District and Uptown—amuses, but is also intended to revolt, the careful readers of a writer like the deeply funny Ellen Gilchrist. The former Vanderbilt student takes a hard but comic look at her own early years as an upper-class alcoholic in many of her short stories, now available in a collected paperback edition, and many of these are so entertaining that only on successive re-readings do we realize just how lethally serious they are about certain issues.
A near-contemporary of Gilchrist’s, the slightly older Shirley Ann Grau remains best known to many readers for her classic 1961 novel The House on Coliseum Street, which revolves around abortion, a revolutionary topic for the era in which the book first appeared. In the categories of genre fiction, Anne Rice and James Lee Burke have shaken up all sorts of conventions and won huge constituencies, especially the former. Her husband, the late Stan Rice, developed, perhaps in reaction to the constant publicity his wife attracted, an increasingly reclusive way of life—painting in the morning, writing poetry at night—and published seven books of poems before succumbing to cancer at age 60.
But it wasn’t just because he was Anne Rice’s husband that Stan Rice was becoming increasingly better known. His editor at Knopf, Deborah Garrison, wrote movingly for P & W magazine of editing his final, posthumous collection, False Prophet, in a fondly elegiac but seriously appreciative and wide-ranging essay called “Last Words: Bringing a Poet's Final Work to Print.” Garrison’s essay is an object lesson in catholicity of taste as well as what goes into the work of editing poetry, which is very different from editing fiction or nonfiction. Back issues of the 2003 P & W (meaning “Poets and Writers”) can be purchased by going to http://www.pw.org/mag/archive/article_details.php?id=1235.
Another writer who should be mentioned here is Christine Wiltz, who is primarily known as a mystery and nonfiction writer Her biography of French Quarter bordello owner Norma Wallace, The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, makes heavy use of the taped memoirs Wallace left behind, and the book has been compared to those other highly-praised writers of the American underlife James Ellroy and Luc Sante. Glass Houses, Wiltz’s most recent novel, takes as its central subject the city’s cruel and still inescapable triangle of race, gender, and class.
Many of the most interesting younger New Orleans writers are published, perhaps not surprisingly, by LSU Press. Its jewel is the Voices of the South series, created to bring certain classics—or books quickly remaindered by New York publishers—back into print, recognizing that the best work doesn’t necessarily have broad commercial appeal. The Press thus supports its own while keeping a national profile, particularly as regards writers as admired as Sheila Bosworth; the estimable Valerie Martin, who was raised in New Orleans and has set several of her books in the general region (most recently Property, which not only received wide critical attention but also won the Orange Prize); and Nancy Lemann.
Bosworth’s two novels Almost Innocent (1996) and Slow Poison (1998) unmistakably depict the aura of corruption that hangs over the city, offering its sweetest, most lyrical and seductive rot—literal and metaphorical—mixed with the scent of its magnolias and camellias and azaleas. Lemann’s novels, meanwhile, are about heartbreak and reticence and honor and manners, and how they shape—or should—the discourse and intercourse between human beings, particularly between men and women, parents and children, family and those friends who may as well be. What frivolous concerns, some may think, especially during this time of stomach-turning racial injustice and horror along a biblical scale we never thought we’d see, much less see 24 hours a day on cable. In years to come, though, as with the testaments of the city’s other voices, we will be grateful to have its portrait of the New Orleans that was, before the levee broke.