I learned about the existence of the book “Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans” by seeing it on a side table in a co-worker’s office. Then, before I could register it in the frontal lobe of my brain, I attended the Jefferson Parish Library’s king cake party whereby several local authors were there signing books. And there was David Lummis promoting his book. New Orleans really is too small.
I am always leery of fiction set in New Orleans, especially the French Quarter. It is such a fine line to write about the inhabitants of the Quarter without getting clichéd.
My fears were unwarranted. As soon as I started it, I loved it. And as each page turned, I loved it more. And when I got to the end, I wanted more.
I love that Lummis describes B. Sammy Singleton’s cat as I would describe mine, thusly: “Even my cat Rowan had decided she’d rather take her chances as a scavenging outdoor orphan than reside under the same roof with me.” I gotta repeat that: a scavenging outdoor orphan. That is SO my cat.
I love this partial description of one of the coffee shops chronicled in the book:
Next: A host of plastic dolls indiscriminately integrated into the décor. Because while I suppose there’s something “New Orleans” about dolls, in this case we’re not talking about anything as interesting as the Anne Rice collection or Mardi Gras king cake babies (the latter of which are additionally thought-provoking in that people occasionally choke to death on them). Nor is there anything even remotely attractive about the dolls now under consideration. No, these are nothing more than poor-quality cast-offs that never should have been mass-produced in the first place, with missing limbs and crayoned faces and torn-out hair, the kind passed over by desperately poor children in thrift stores. Apparently somebody dropped a tab of acid, made a run on Thrift City, raided the kindergarten supplies aisle at Wal-Mart, and went to work on these babes in a way that would do Timothy Leary proud, nailing them to the walls in a final manic burst of adrenalin before lapsing into unconsciousness.
I love Lummis’ description of New Orleans as Sammy sits in Jackson Square reconsidering his decision to have moved from New York City:
Sure, the place has its share of problems (you know a city’s corrupt when top school officials embezzle millions from their own pitifully impoverished districts). But just as there’s something to be said for living in the City that Never Sleeps, there’s something downright sublime about residing in a town that peddles itself as the City That Care Forgot, where Time does business in pajamas and takes frequent catnaps. And undeniably, New Orleans has made the concept of laissez-faire into an art form dating back at least to the Civil War, when it became the first major city of the Deep South to be occupied by Union forces, which remained throughout the last three years of the war. The alternative, I suppose, would have been for the citizens of the Paris of the South to fight back. But as the ships of General Farragut came up the Mississippi in 1862, the closest the people of New Orleans came to taking up arms was to stand alongside the levee brandishing their parasols and shaking their fists.
My hands-down favorite part was the description of Sammy’s first visit to St. Louis Cathedral. When I was reading this section, I was putting Sun down for a nap and she asked me to read to her. So I read her what I was reading. And maybe that act of reading that particular passage aloud is what made it so powerful. But when I finished the last words of that chapter, I had to stop. I had a frog in my throat and tears in my eyes.
The mistake that could be made about this book is that it’s merely fluff: A non-native gay man’s exploits in coffee shops. It starts out highly-caffeinated and colorful. But Lummis is a researcher. You know that Sammy’s trips to the Historic New Orleans Collection were also Lummis’. Not being a local, Lummis earns his right to write about the city not just by having lived here for several years but also by learning her history.
And although this book is in parts dark, and some of the history difficult to read, the honesty with which Lummis writes carries you through. He is a gifted writer, and this gem is a gift to New Orleans. Now do yourself a favor and buy it as a gift for yourself. You can buy it at various locations on the website, or at Octavia Books if you are uptown or Faubourg Marigny Art & Books if you are downtown.
The good news is that this is just the first of three installments to this one novel. So there’s more coming!
This post was originally published on http://www.nolanotes.com on March 13, 2011.