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A Jambalaya That Doesn't Keep

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardley@washpost.com
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page C03


A Woman Unleashes Her Hound and His Dog in the Big Easy

By Judy Conner

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Gotham. 223 pp. $23

To what extent "Southern Fried Divorce" is memoir and to what extent it's fiction is unclear -- a mix of the two, probably, scarcely for the first time in this Age of Memoir -- but either way, the verdict is the same: At times Judy Conner's account of her New Orleans-style separation and divorce is amusing, at times it's labored. It starts out well, and for a while you feel as if you're taking a leisurely ride on the St. Charles Avenue trolley, laughing at the eccentric people and places you see along the way. But about halfway through, the ride gets bumpy, and your pleasure eventually degenerates into exasperation.

Published last spring as a paperback original by Light of New Orleans Press, "Southern Fried Divorce" was discovered by an editor at Gotham Books (an offshoot of Penguin) and is now being given a shot at national readership. The problem is that the Southern-fried humor in which Conner specializes doesn't travel all that well, and when the humorist is a woman, the problem gets worse. This is because the good-ol'-girl phenomenon -- sassy, tough-talkin', hard-drinkin', cussin' chicks with Southern drawls -- is almost entirely unknown outside her native region and often seems, to the uninitiated, a creature from another planet.

Still, give Conner full credit for trying hard. As is true of just about all humorists, when she tries too hard the labor shows and the humor goes flat, but when she just lets things flow, she does some nice stuff -- especially about New Orleans, a place that loves "a tacky display," a place where "you could have somebody killed for $300," a place "up to our butts in lawyers," one of whom she nails in a deft cameo:

"Directly, a bristling top-notch of 'morning hair' attached to the pounding, throbbing, hung-over head of lawyer Sparky popped up above the windowsill. He waved that he'd be along. Eventually, preceded several feet by last night's fumes, he presented himself curbside. He had anointed himself liberally with cologne in a futile attempt at masking the Jack Daniel's. The seersucker suit he had selected had come from the bottom of the pile and it was redolent of garlic and grease from, I would guess, Parasol's, since it was near his house. He probably had a lot of his meals there. When he wasn't conferring at Galatoire's. If you're going to wear something from off your floor, seersucker is a wise choice as it looks wrinkled anyway and the stripes hide the footprints. I bet there haven't been a dozen seersucker suits sold outside of New Orleans in fifty years. It's the summer uniform here. Even for guys with lots better taste."

Lawyer Sparky is on hand for the divorce proceedings between Conner and "that ex-husband," as she calls the party in question. As such matters go, the divorce (which occurred in the 1980s) was a casual affair, "because we lived in Louisiana and were both real lazy and afraid of anything involving paperwork and forms to fill out," with the result that "it would be years before all of the divorce deed would actually be done." It was casual and amicable as well, with an occasional roll in the hay for old times' sake, generous alimony and a lifetime bar tab, i.e., "free-stuff-in-perpetuity at the nightspots that ex-husband continued to operate after we split up."

The ex-husband grew up in Northwest Washington, where his father "had a perfectly respectable job as a lawyer for the Senate, so he did know lots of influential types in Washington, or 'The District.' " Unfortunately "he missed the Father of the Year Award by a wide margin on account of he used memos as his main mode of communicating with his children," with the result that the man Conner ended up marrying developed a lethal combination of entitlement and irresponsibility; for him, "nothing was too juvenile or embarrassing." He owned a club near Tulane University that "offered only draft beer, peanuts, and hilarity for a clientele consisting mostly of the neighborhood rabble plus Tulane students and faculty. . . . an occupation where he could pretty much be a shiftless ne'er-do-well right there on the job."

Among the sources of hilarity at the University Inn was a customer nicknamed Hiram the Scot, who was "known for his thrift and his singing voice" but possessed "a limited repertoire" consisting of a ditty called "The Highland Tinker." It cannot be quoted, alas, in a family newspaper, but it's just about worth the price of admission to "Southern Fried Divorce" for anyone with a taste for bawdy ballads, though it's merely a variation on one of the most commonly crooned songs when people get a few more beers into them than is good for them.

In any event "that ex-husband" turns out to be a pretty good guy, his many faults notwithstanding, indeed "as polite and accommodating an ex-husband as a body could want." Not merely did he allow her to run a free tab at the club, he took her to Clancy's restaurant on Annunciation Street in Uptown, a spot known to few tourists but cherished by locals; just reading about her meals was a nostalgia trip for me. He paid her alimony even after she got a job, and he gave her "a brown fuzzy puppy" that ended up dividing its time between her place and his. The dog hung out at the club and "was very popular among those of us that he had never bitten."

Eventually Conner's ex-husband paid for his boozing and general misbehavior, in ways that must be left for the reader to discover but that were painful for all those immediately involved. Looking back, Conner finds herself wondering "if our marriage mightn't have gone a bit better if I'd been a little less hateful" and "if there were communication skills that were more effective than seething and snarling and frothing and relentless browbeating." In other words, she wasn't exactly a day at the beach -- or a night at Clancy's -- herself:

"That ex-husband grinned happily and sprang to open the car door for me to demonstrate goodwill. Years before we'd engaged in a war of wills over the opening of car doors. One of my few victories. I guess you can tell that I didn't always put as much thought into my choice of battles as I might have. This was not much of a hill to die on."

That quotation, like all but a couple of the others in this review, is to be found in the first half of "Southern Fried Divorce." By the second half, Conner is reduced to printing recipes to pad the book out, and the surprising truth is that they aren't very good recipes. For someone who dines regularly at Clancy's, she has a pretty weird sense of culinary excellence. Most of the recipes read as if they'd come off a soup can, and one actually calls for canned mushroom soup. If that's Louisiana cooking, I'm Chef Emeril.

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