There is not a trace of the New South in "Lives of the Saints." References to rap records and music videos may place this first novel in the 1980s, but its heart is anachronistic. The wealthy, neurotic characters who move gracefully and aimlessly through an endless round of drinks, parties and nervous breakdowns would seem equally -- perhaps more -- at home in the New Orleans of 1920 as in the present-day city. The wailing old-time jazz that plays constantly in the background and the mood of desperate, drunken gaiety recall the hectic flush of a Fitzgerald story.
But while Fitzgerald's characters expressed the quintessential passions and fears of their generation, Lemann's men and women seem terribly irrelevant -- not just to the rest of the world, but to themselves as well. Unfortunately, the reader comes to share their indifference; Lemann has vividly evoked a particular geographic location and way of life in rich, if sometimes mannered, prose, but she hasn't created people we care about.
To be fair, one must note that her characters' irrelevancy is part of Lemann's point. The South, narrator Louise Brown frequently reminds us, is a defeated nation; the class to which Louise belongs lost its sense of purpose after the Civil War and never regained it. People mask their lack of direction with violent, extravagant behavior and language. "It seemed like everyone I knew was either drunk or in a fight with someone or had gotten in near-fatal car wrecks," Louise remarks, and her lover Claude mocks his genuine emotions with exaggerated overstatement -- "his heart was constantly breaking into a million pieces on the floor." These folks can't even take their own despair seriously; the problem is, neither can the reader.
The slight plot centers on Louise's relationship with Claude. (His full name, St. Claude Collier, makes him one of the novel's three saints.) Though in his late twenties, he can't manage to graduate from college, hold down a job or stay out of trouble. He's "aimless at his core," Louise admits, but she's drawn to him nonetheless: with his manners, recklessness and charm he epitomizes the foolish, doomed yet splendid South she loves. Less romantic readers, however, may find Claude the epitome of a wastrel as he drifts through the book drinking too much, betting on fixed horse races and causing Louise great pain with his careless ways. She tells us he is kind, wise, steadfast, honorable and ardent; we see only that he is self-destructive and unhappy.
He's not alone. "Lives of the Saints" is full of miserable, out-of-control people: bachelors usually heard screaming, "Because I love you, Godamnit!" as they hurl pots and pans down stairs, undertakers who want to be exploded at their own funerals, hysterical girls most often seen being dragged from sports cars outside bars -- an entire tribe afflicted with "crackpot Southern problems."
Even Claude's father, a respectable lawyer who loves "celebrating the mundane" in his daily rituals and seems totally unlike his son, isn't as stable as he appears. When sudden tragedy shatters his routine, it becomes clear that Mr. Collier had repressed, but not eliminated, the same longing for transcendence and secret fascination with death that are at the root of Claude's erratic behavior. Louise isn't in great shape either, but she's still able -- to Claude's perpetual astonishment -- to scramble eggs for breakfast, fix a cheese sandwich at lunch time, maintain some semblance of normality. In the world they inhabit, even a veneer of sanity is a major achievement.
All of this could add up to an entertaining novel about the bizarre personalities created by a culture in decay, but it doesn't. Part of the trouble is that Lemann is a little too pleased with her characters' craziness and destructiveness. It's fine to recognize the glamor of decadence; it's boring to wallow in it. Claude would be more credible if he were allowed to be simply an appealing ne'er-do-well, but Louise insists on his deeper significance in such high-flown terms ("He had the sweetness of the town itself," "His kisses were like conducting conversations with angels in Heaven") that they both seem ridiculous.
There are some fine moments in "Lives of the Saints." Lemann's prose has a distinctive sound and weight: southern lushness reined in by a strong sense of irony. Her physical descriptions of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are wonderful, evoking not only a sense of place but an understanding of the society created by southern geography. When she's not trying to give them unmerited meaningfulness, her oddball characters are funny and (mostly) appealing.
The main problem is lack of discipline: though "Lives of the Saints" is quite short, it feels sprawling, and the endless repetition of key phrases, although obviously deliberate, adds to the impression of a novel not as firmly controlled as it should be. Lemann anticipates these objections to "a lack of plot or design" and insists "that is the plot, that is the crisis -- the crisis of youth and aimlessness." She ought to know, however, that a book about unfocused people should not itself be unfocused.