I was fully prepared to be disappointed with New Orleans. Tacky voodoo dolls. Garish Mardi Gras floats. Anne Rice striking spooky poses in marbled cemeteries. Surely, New Orleans would be the capital of kitsch, a painted jade of a city, Disney World for Levittowners on holiday.
And who couldn't imagine the bookshops in the Big Easy? Serried rows of the oeuvres completes of Frances Parkinson Keyes, that forgotten giantess of the bestseller lists of yore. Multiple book-club editions of Dinner at Antoine's and Steamboat Gothic. Worn copies of Lafcadio Hearn's lesser works, not to mention tattered firsts of James Lee Burke's more common mysteries.
But, shrewd reader, you can doubtless see what's coming: I fell in love with the place. We are talking major-league enchantment here. The belle of the bayou hath me in thrall.
Late last September I left O-Town -- as the oldies deejay calls Orlando, where I've been teaching this fall -- to spend three days at the annual Words & Music extravaganza, organized largely by the Faulkner Society. On a Thursday evening I strode purposefully off my plane, pen in hand, repp tie casually knotted, a serious journalist in a navy blue blazer, out for a story. But no character in Graham Greene ever went to seed faster than I did in the Crescent City.
The actual weekend passed in a fever-dream of heavenly irresponsibility. On Friday I woke a little after dawn at the Royal Orleans Hotel -- pronounced "OrLeens," by the way; the city itself is a slurred "NuOrluns." The night before, Marty, the doorman, had greeted me with the state's most ingratiating smile, exhibiting the kind of Southern cheeriness that a natural-born melancholiac can only envy. Still preternaturally affable at 7 a.m., he pointed me to Chartres Street, which leads to St. Louis Cathedral at the edge of Jackson Square. From that moment on, everything grows a bit hazy. When you have drunk the milk of paradise, you tend to forget about taking notes.
After all, to saunter through the French Quarter for beignets and coffee on a perfect October morning or to sip a Pimm's cup at Napoleon House, as the barman slices cucumbers and the Emperor himself looks down at you from a hundred pictures and posters on the wall -- what could be more idyllic? Except, perhaps, to lounge at an outdoor cafe in Pirate's Alley, next to the Faulkner House Bookshop, and chat about modern fiction with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, as your wine glasses catch the slanted light of a fall afternoon. It might almost be a quiet corner of Paris or -- as Hijuelos remarked -- old Havana.
Decadent? Perhaps. New Orleans is a big modern city, with the usual urban complexities, and a visitor pampers himself, ignores the potholes, finds the decaying neighborhoods romantic. Still, a corner eatery like Mena's Palace, where I ordered seafood gumbo, possesses something I hadn't experienced in a long time: a European civility, coupled with an easygoing hedonism. As A.J. Liebling once observed (in The Earl of Louisiana), New Orleans is actually a Mediterranean city, lying within the orbit of a Hellenistic world that never touched the north Atlantic. The Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico form a homogeneous, though interrupted, sea.
Big, Easy and Bookish
Body should not be bruised to pleasure soul, said Yeats. He might have been thinking of New Orleans, where the life of the mind and the senses really might be one. Late that first afternoon, I stopped in Beckham's Book Store and discovered a beautiful hardcover of M.W.L. Laistner's classic Thought and Letters in Western Europe, 500-900, then strolled over to Felix's, where I plopped into a booth for a shrimp po-boy sandwich, washed down with a glass of beer, the local Abita amber, of course. Refreshed, I then wandered on to another bookshop, where I spied a neatly tied bundle of 15 issues of Arion, a lively quarterly devoted to the Latin and Greek classics. A buck apiece. I bought them all -- as who would not? On the shop's second floor I later picked up Gerard Manley Hopkins's correspondence with Richard Watson Dixon, which I've needed for years to fill out my Hopkins collection, and the volume of the Yale edition of James Boswell's letters concerning the creation of his Life of Johnson. Treasures, both. A good afternoon.
A good day. Earlier that sunny Friday, I had attended a luncheon/seminar presented by Words and Music 99: "Walker Percy's Search for Meaning in a World of the Mundane." There I chatted with a former corporate wheeler-dealer, now the proud owner of a St. Charles Street cabaret called Le Chat Noir. Images of Sally Bowles flashed through my head. Willkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome. "Ride the streetcar," said my new friend, "and come visit my club." Talking about books, she recommended Obituary Cocktail, a picture album of the city's great saloon.
I told her about Susan Larson's splendid Booklover's Guide to New Orleans (due out this month). Following lunch, Rosemary James -- organizer of the conference -- introduced the speakers, including Faulkner textual scholar Noel Polk, writers Tim Gautreaux, Stewart O'Nan and Nancy Lemann, and Kenneth Holditch, an old friend of Percy's and an expert on Tennessee Williams. Holditch reminisced about the revered author of The Moviegoer: "Walker was terribly allergic to kiwi fruit . . . He never missed `As the World Turns' and `The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' . . . It took a long time to decipher his handwriting." He also recalled Percy's one writing class at Loyola -- students included Gautreaux, Valerie Martin and journalist Walter Isaacson -- at which the novelist read from the manuscript of John Kennedy Toole's rumbustious Pulitzer Prize-winner, A Confederacy of Dunces.
"No, Joe, I Don't Do That"
Which, according to Joseph DeSalvo of the Faulkner House Bookshop, is the quintessential New Orleans novel. Joe -- everybody calls him Joe -- also recommended The Moviegoer and Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, by John Gregory Brown. Brown, an amiable New Orleans native now teaching at Sweet Briar College, just happened to be in the shop that day. It seems that everyone with any interest in literature drops by Pirate's Alley. A few weeks earlier, Cormac McCarthy came in. "I recognized him," Joe recounted, "and asked if he would sign a couple of his books." The famously reclusive novelist just said, "No, Joe, I don't do that anymore." Apparently McCarthy was spending some time here researching the lives of deep sea divers on off-shore oil rigs.
As one would expect, Joe keeps a large stock of Faulkner material; I bought a copy of the writer's youthful letters home, letters written while he was living in this very building during the mid 1920s and just starting out as a novelistic genius. But Joe carries a lot of contemporary literature too: Sheila Bosworth, Shirley Ann Grau, Ellen Gilchrist. On the walls were numerous framed photographs -- Hemingway, Welty, Shaw -- and a holograph letter by Flannery O'Connor in which she writes a friend: "I hear that the NBC Catholic [radio] Hour that comes on Sunday afternoon is going to devote all this July's programs to the subject of Catholic literature."
Joe used to be a tax lawyer in New York, but book-collecting was his hook on sanity. He proudly showed me his cherished first edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Nine years ago Joe's wife, conference mastermind Rosemary James, discovered that the Faulkner House was on the market. It had been owned for the previous 20 or 30 years by a retired orthodontist who used it -- only in New Orleans -- to store and restore religious artifacts. Joe and Rosemary bought the building, moved in upstairs and, feeling a sense of obligation to the house, opened the bookshop. At the same time, almost as a lark, they started the Faulkner Society. Even as I talked with Joe, writers kept coming by to say hello: Jayne Anne Phillips; local author Tom Franklin, whose story "Poachers" won an Edgar Award this year from the Mystery Writers of America. Then, just as I was about to leave, in sauntered Oscar Hijuelos. To my astonishment Joe rushed away for a moment, then returned with a proof of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which he presented to its author. "I thought you should have this." Hijuelos was amazed. I was amazed -- a bookseller giving away a modern first worth several hundred dollars. Later the novelist and I talked about publishing, the Irish comic genius Flann O'Brien, Hemingway: "If you're building cabinets," said Hijuelos of In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises, "you want to look at the work of a master cabinet maker."
During my evenings I meandered around the French Quarter, past jazz clubs and strip clubs, past the Cafe du Monde, past mimes and horse-drawn carriages and Lucky Dog vendors, past trumpeters playing "Go Tell It on the Mountain." I even peered through the windows at Galatoire's restaurant, where the two strangers meet in Eudora Welty's wistful "No Place for You, My Love."
One night I stopped by the famous carousel bar at the Hotel Monteleone, outside of which once ran the even more famous streetcar named Desire. On my last day in paradise I drove up through the Garden District -- a genteel neighborhood of pillared manors and elaborate iron grille work -- to the Columns Hotel, where "Pretty Baby" was filmed. There I sat for an hour on the big front porch, sipping another Abita, and reading Walker Percy's essay "New Orleans, Mon Amour": "Out and over a watery waste and there it is, a proper enough American city, and yet within the next few few hours the tourist is apt to see more nuns and naked women than he ever saw before. And when he opens the sports pages to follow the Packers, he comes across such enigmatic headlines as Holy Angels Slaughter Sacred Heart
. . . ." I remember looking up from my book, studying the giant live oak in front of the hotel, its trunk mottled with lichen, its branches spread out like Medusa's snaky curls. A latter-day Louise Brooks, with jet-black hair and severely cut bangs, sprawled at a table near me, smoking a cheroot in a long cigarette holder, sipping a drink that I hoped was absinthe. Later I went on to the Maple Street Bookstore, once a favorite haunt of Walker Percy's, and there, as a memento, paid $65 for a signed first of The Thanatos Syndrome.
That very Sunday, September 26, was William Faulkner's birthday. In the evening pianist Quinn Peeper was scheduled to play the music of native son Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and the Faulkner medals for unpublished novella, short story and essay were going to be presented. But late that afternoon I needed to be on my way back to Orlando, back to classes and book reviews, back to real life.
As my plane took off, I tried to decide whether to keep reading A Confederacy of Dunces. I couldn't, not with a class to teach the next day. Instead I opened my brief case and pulled out a sheaf of exams that needed grading. "There are several reasons to make violence a comical act and many of these apply to the death of Clare Quilty in Lolita. . . ." I sighed and took another long sip of black coffee.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.