Faulkner They Ain’t

As soon as New Orleans began looking like some kind of awful latter-day Atlantis earlier this week, the inevitable mawkish, maudlin elegies to the Lost City came wafting in.

New Orleans, it seems, was a fantasyland, full of earthly pleasures for a host of middle-aged white writers. And even as people were still struggling against the rising water, those writers wanted to remember; they wanted to remember the strippers, the po’boy sandwiches, the dark river, Mardi Gras, the beads, the jazz, the booze, the women. And so we got memories of magical first girlfriends, usually encountered on magical drunken nights, and unbridled dancing — lots and lots of unbridled dancing.

Richard Parker at The New Republic was typical: “One of the prettiest women I ever knew was a wonderful girl from Mississippi, an aging ex-cheerleader whose brother was a star football player at Ole Miss before he relocated to the French Quarter — to become one of the most popular drag queens of the time. A girlfriend who took me into the heart of New Orleans society showed me that it wasn’t so much about the money as it was about the ability to rip the tablecloth off the dining room table after a four-course meal — just so we could dance on it.”

New Orleans, Parker writes, “taught me to be me.”

And Parker’s rumination, believe it or not, was restrained compared to others.

Ben Macintyre, writing in the London Times, recalled a New Orleans,where the “normal rules do not apply,” a town that was “a spicy human gumbo: a mixture of Creole and Cajun, white and black, French, English, Spanish Irish, German and African, the kitsch and the cool.” For Macintyre, “even the street names beckoned huskily: Amour, Abundance, Treasure.”

Michael Leeden, at National Review, sees Naples in New Orleans. “Naples also faces destruction — volcanic destruction, from ‘Vesuvius the Exterminator,’ as the poet Verga once wrote — and Naples, too, is noted for a lively, and often lawless style of life, along with great literature, art, cuisine and music. Unlike Venice, Naples is every bit as southern as New Orleans, and the European stereotype of the Neapolitan is very much like the American image of New Orleanians: lazy, happy, spontaneous, and unrepressed, slow-moving but quick-witted, and very happy with the food.”

It gets worse, as two southern-boys-gone-north-and-then-gone-bad chime in — both disgraced scribes cast out of the temple of the New York Times, as it happens. Howell Raines and Rick Bragg win the big powdered beignet here for the purpleness of their prose, the musky ambience of their intoxification with self, the fervid mix of imagination and memory that they serve up like — well, like bad gumbo.

Runner-up is Raines, former executive editor at the Times, who writes that, “like millions of other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism.”

But the piece de resistance of Raines’ offering is this paragraph-long reverie (remember, now: New Orleans has turned into Lord of the Flies even as Raines writes this): “Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling the drunken Dodge salesmen of Centralia, Illinois, of shaky-handed failed watercolourists hanging unloved pictures on the wrought-iron fence at Jackson Square, of gaunt-eyed superannuated transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their tits on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung by a drunken college boy on the balcony of his daddy’s $1,500 suite at the Soniat House — must we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalysed?”

But nobody — nobody — beats Rick Bragg when it comes to waxing excessive about the beloved love and booze-drenched city of his youth.

“Ever since I was barely in my twenties, I have loved [New Orleans] the way some men love women, if that means unreasonably,” Bragg writes. “I fell in love with the city and a Louisiana State University sophomore on the same night, eating shrimp cooked seven ways in the Quarter, riding the ferry across the black, black river where fireworks burned the air at Algiers Point. I drank so much rum I could sleep standing up against a wall. The sophomore left me, smiling, but the city never did.”

And then: “What a place, so at ease here at the elbow of death, where I once marched and was almost compelled to dance in a jazz funeral for a street-corner conjurer named Chicken Man, who was carried to his resting place by a hot-stepping brass band and a procession of mourners who drank long-neck beers and laughed out loud as his hearse rolled past doorways filled with men and women who clapped in time.”

Bragg has the dubious facility to top himself with every paragraph. And you really need to read it to believe it: in Bragg’s vision, New Orleans is a place where you don’t mind “the heat because that is what the devil sends, heat and water, to make you appreciate the smell of crushed cherries and whiskey on the balcony at the Columns Hotel, to make you savor the barbecued shrimp, to make you hear, really hear, the sound of a 12-year-old boy blowing his own heart out into a battered trumpet by a ragged cardboard box full of pocket change.”

There will be plenty of time for all of us to invoke all of our drunken memories of stumbling down Bourbon Street, of pockets mysteriously picked and of pretty girls mysteriously vanished by dawn.

But is now really the time for them? While people are still struggling against the fetid water, hunger, dehydration and disease, dying by the hundreds?

Let’s drain the streets of the city first, figure out how many succumbed to the waters, decide where the blame lies and what hope there is for rebuilding the city — in short, tend to the business at hand.

And then we can all sit back in our rockers, with our whisky neat at our hands, and our feet propped on the porch rail, and reminisce about the one — the drink, the girl, the music, the city — the one that got away.

Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.