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Apropos of Nothing

New Orleans on My Mind

Birnbaum and Tom Piazza discuss their favorite Big Easy books.

Book Cover In my world, the build-up and anticipation for David Simon’s crew’s new creation Treme was hypertensive, culminating with the airing of the first episode on Sunday last.

Perhaps the wider universe was preoccupied with the foibles of an errant golfer and hopefully paying some attention as the Catholic Church attempted various Jesuitical acrobatics to distance itself and the so-called Holy Father from the depredations of various shepherds (I, for one, look forward to the imbroglio that will accompany the intended arrest of the Pope prompted by the relentless and righteous anger of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins). Ah, but I digress…

David Simon and a host of very talented filmmakers are, of course, responsible for the creation of one of the greatest epics of filmic narrative in the annals of that desert known as American television, The Wire, which HBO exhibited for five seasons. The avid adoration, coupled with the ability of the show’s fans to articulate the reasons for their ardent devotion, represents a triumph of excellence (the recent airing of The People Speak offers another reason to feel hopeful in these dark times when the cultural and media landscape is festooned with bellicose know-nothings and carnie barkers).

Anyway, where The Wire grabbed from the get-go (with a white homicide detective talking with a black housing-project kid), the three episodes of Treme (thanks, HBO) I have watched enveloped me in a kind of comfortable preternatural alertness—if you know what I mean. And already, in the first episode, I have found a character that looks to be as fascinating (albeit in a non-lethal way) as The Wire’s Omar (for the uninitiated, you have something to look forward to if you are convinced by suggestions that The Wire fits the definition of must-see).

If you have missed the build-up for Treme I am surprised you have found your way to this. The story is set in New Orleans’s lower Ninth Ward three months after the disaster and debacle known as Katrina in an area called Treme by its residents and the area’s cognoscenti. As in Tom Piazza’s impassioned novel City of Refuge (Piazza is also a writer on the Treme crew), we are given a bird’s eye and on-the-ground view of Katrina’s aftermath. The show opens with some Treme residents participating in the New Orleans trademark ritual known as “the second line.”

As New Orleans was much on my mind this weekend, I attempted to recall the stories with which I am familiar that are set in the so-called Big Easy (also known for reasons unknown as the City Care Forgot). The best I could come up with was Piazza’s above-mentioned opus, Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors, a few Richard Ford stories, Robert Stone’s vivid report on the Republican convention in the ‘80s, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, Julie Smith’s crime stories of which I am slightly familiar (with the Axeman title), Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing, and Amanda Boyden’s Babylon Rolling.

I was moved communicate with my man in New Orleans, the aforementioned Tom Piazza, who took time out to help:
The fact is that I haven’t read a whole lot of New Orleans fiction, since it almost never lines up with my experience of New Orleans, which is less about Uptown society and more about the musical and cultural world here. Also, don’t have a lot of use for the whole vampire thing, or associated themes… That being said, I guess the obvious omissions from your list so far are Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer, which captures a lot of the off-social and spiritual music of this place, and John Kennedy Toole’s whacked-out tour de force, A Confederacy of Dunces, which, like chicory coffee, will not be to every taste….

Chris Wiltz’s novel Glass House is highly regarded by a couple people I know who have read it, although can’t endorse personally, since I haven’t gotten to it yet. Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The House On Coliseum Street is set here, but I almost hate to mention it, as she was personally very mean to me when I first arrived in N.O. I read Nancy Lemann’s novel Lives Of The Saints years ago and remember liking it.

There’s a collection of stories entitled French Quarter Fiction, which is more or less just what it claims to be, edited by Josh Clark, and that contains all kinds of stuff, including one of mine.

Of course, making lists like these is a good way to get a lot of people mad at you, and if this is for publication, I hereby apologize to all I left out. These are the ones that occur to me off the top of my head.
Stay tuned, the dogs bark and the caravan rolls on…
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