Country Roads

I am from the South, which is probably something Constant Reader is sick of hearing about–but I feel like I always need to make that clear. While I grew up in Chicago and Kansas, I have always identified as Southern, as being from Alabama. It’s where I was born, and it’s where, as we say down here, my people are from. I was raised and shaped by natives of Alabama, who were raised and shaped and became who they were in Alabama, because of Alabama, and who identify completely as Alabamians.

I’ve now lived in the south for twenty five years this coming August 1st; even though many Southerners don’t think of New Orleans as Southern. (I would not dispute that thought, either; New Orleans is of the South but is not the same as the rest of the South…but once you cross the Orleans Parish line you are definitely back in the South, but southern Louisiana, while still similar, isn’t the same because of Acadiana.)

My relationship with the South, and with being Southern, is a complicated one, and one that I am constantly evaluating and examining, over and over again. I have pride of region, which is definitely a Southern trait; woe be to those who might condemn or stereotype or insult the region to my face. I am aware of the faults, and the flaws, and the horrors; I don’t need anyone to tell me or lecture me about its history and how it came to be the way that it is now., or of it’s racist history or of the current racism which still seems to be the majority opinion here. I’ve heard all the inbreeding jokes, and jokes about toothless people and hillbillies and white trash and people of Wal-mart and so forth; so by all means, keep them to yourselves. I also have always understood the difference between heritage and hate; I may have been very young but I remember the Civil Rights Movement vividly.

I was never a fan of Confederate statues, for example; I never understood the insistence on venerating men I didn’t consider heroes but traitors, even when I was young. I remember always thinking, but they lost, and they hated the United States, why should we revere that? The cognitive dissonance of being “patriotic Americans” while venerating those who fired upon the flag and tried to start their own country disturbed me when I was a kid and it never made sense to me, and no matter how many times the mythology of the happy slave was spoon-fed to me, whether it was Gone with the Wind (both book and movie), or any of the many other examples from fiction, film and television. The Biblical example of Pharaoh and Egypt (beyond their reject of the one God), holding the Hebrews in bondage as slaves was always right there, too.

And if might equals right, hadn’t the complete and utter defeat of the Confederacy, in such an incredibly humiliating fashion, a complete defeat that left the rebellious slave states in smoking ruins and their economy wrecked (much as Germany was after World War II), further proof that slavery and secession were wrong?

And yet it is an incredibly beautiful part of the country, whether it’s the gorgeous Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina or the massive live oaks of New Orleans, the swamps of Louisiana andthe pine forests of Mississippi and Alabama, the lower Ozarks in Arkansas, the beaches of Alabama and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Savannah and Charleston and New Orleans are beautiful cities; the college campuses of the Southern states are breaktaking in their beauty.

Driving through Mississippi and Alabama, the countryside is so beautiful, the , with the pine tree forests and the red earth, the sloping hills and flowing rivers, that it always inspires my creative brain to think about stories and writing and books. I love the South, despite all the things that are wrong with it, because it’s also a part of me, of who I am. I love its contradictions–like how when you drive through the Smoky Mountains at night you will come across three enormous crosses rising out of the fog that announce the presence of a megachurch…and the same highway exit also plays host to Triple X Super Store.

It’s also interesting that I am returning to my first real manuscript about Alabama, set in a fictional recreation of the part of Alabama from which I came originally, while reading Kelly J. Ford’s debut novel, Cottonmouths–because even though Ford’s book is about Arkansas, the small country town and its surrounding rural area is very similar to my Alabama.

From behind, the woman standing with a guy next to the Love’s Truck Stop air pump looked like any other woman: long hair, too skinny, big purse, big sunglasses. But when the woman turned and smiled, Emily’s chest tightened and her insides tingled in a forgotten but familiar way. Rumors of Jody’s return had come as whispers around town, but until now Emily had lacked proof.

A warm breeze blew petroleum fumes and cigarette smoke into her face while she sought further confirmation of who she’d seen. Gas spilled onto her hand. Startled, she released the trigger on the pump and swiped her hand across her jeans. She sheltered her eyes from the sun to scan the parking lot. But the woman and the guy were gone.

Back on the highway, Emily tried to keep her mind as empty and barren as the farmland that rolled by. When that didn’t work, she turned up the radio and hit scan, unable to settle on the station offerings from the nearest town–country or Christian or the same four pop songs on repeat interspersed with commercials for pawn shops and car lots. Midway through the miles she punched the radio off and tried to tell herself that her new fast food job and her time at home were temporary, though she’d been back a month already.

Cottonmouths is many things, all wrapped up into a compelling story told with gorgeous language. Emily, the main character, has essentially flunked out of college and is wrestling, as so many Southern queers do, with the bipolarity of a deeply Christian small town/rural upbringing struggling against her deepest secret of desire for other women. She’s an outsider, which gives her the ability to see everyone and everything around her with brighter clarity than the insiders have the chance to see–she can see the hypocrisy in her deeply Christian town, and the abhorrence of difference, which makes her feel not only like an outsider but horribly, terribly lonely. It is this lesbian desire within her that ultimately led to her flunking out of college, an inability to come to terms with who she actually is despite being raised in a way that makes her loathe who she actually is. So she has returned to the dying little town of Drear’s Bluff, with its explosive boredom, feeling like a failure for flunking out of college and terrified to admit to people outside her parents that she has failed. She can only find a part time job working fast food in nearby Fort Smith–a job she is too ashamed to admit to her parents she has had to take.

And more than anything, she feels trapped. She wants to escape this town, escape its suffocating claustrophobia, and be free–but she needs money to do that, and without money–as is all too true for most people, she cannot escape.

The return of her best friend from high school, Jody, whom she sees at the Love’s Truck Stop, is the trigger that starts the story in motion. Jody, whom the good people of Drear’s Bluff consider “white trash”, has a baby and is unmarried and living in the old trailer parked on her family’s land. Emily’s past with Jody is also fraught; her family took Jody in when she was a teenager when her mother took off, and one night Emily made a move on her–and the next day Jody was gone, back to her mother and out of her life. This guilt has always plagued Emily; wrapped up in the strict confines of the narrow-minded Christianity she was raised with, and with Jody back now, Emily isn’t so sure what she wants or needs–but those unresolved feelings of first love and desire have now bubbled back up to the surface again.

Cottonmouths is what I would call “rural Southern noir;” while crime and criminal activity is a driving force to the story, it’s also more than that–it’s a compelling portrait of a slice of American life so many Americans it doesn’t affect do not want to face: the death of the small town way of life, the loss of employment opportunity, the collapse of hope for something better. It’s about different kinds of yearnings, and how hope can be twisted into seeing criminality as the only way out. Like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, Flannery O’Connor and so many others, Ford shows us the reality of rural Southern life; how the deep religious belief can go hand in hand with smug superiority and class warfare–how those who theoretically follow Christ, who ministered to the poor and sick, can somehow hate the poor and look down on them.

There are so many little touches here that ring so true–Love’s Truck Stops, which are scattered throughout the south along its highways and byways; the prayer circles where they drink Virgin Bloody Mary mix; the judgment for not attending church twice on Sundays and for Bible study on Wednesdays; and the viciousness of gossip and the fear that everyone will talk about you, and judge you, and laugh at you–or rather, passive-aggressively shake their heads while murmuring Christian platitudes while the gleam of enjoyment shines in their eyes.

I enjoyed this, and I am really looking forward to what comes next from Kelly J. Ford.

People Everyday

Hulu is streaming a two-part true crime documentary about a string of unsolved murders of women in Jefferson Davis Parish, Murder in the Bayou. I have a copy of Ethan Brown’s book of the same title, released a few years ago, but haven’t read it yet (instead, it’s sits on a shelf in the mini-bookcase to the right of my desk, where I also keep other nonfiction–histories, true crime, cultural studies–about both New Orleans and Louisiana; books which I delve into periodically in order to come up with ideas for stories (novels and short stories and novellas, etc.), or background for the same. (One of the many reasons I laugh when people refer to me as ‘a New Orleans expert’ is because I am everything but an expert on the city; there are literally hundreds of volumes of reference books information about New Orleans I’ve not read and know nothing about)  Mr. Brown came to the Tennessee Williams Festival a few years ago, but I didn’t get to meet him or see any of his panels, but I did pick up his book that weekend.

So, you can imagine my surprise the other night when I opened the Hulu app on my television (ten years ago that sentence would have been as unintelligible to me as Latin) and I saw it listed as a show I might be interested in. “Huh,” I thought, clicking on it, “I wonder if this is the same story as the book I’ve not read?”

Sure enough, it was.

I finished watching the show yesterday afternoon, and then of course, got the book from the bookshelf and started reading it…and didn’t stop until I was finished. I hadn’t intended to do that; I actually started writing this post after I finished watching the documentary series and simply reached over to the bookcase and pulled it out–mainly to see if there were photographs in it–many true crime books do–and since it didn’t, I started reading…and then couldn’t stop. I’ll talk some more about both the documentary and the book in another entry; I want to think about it some more, and the issues that came to mind while watching/reading–but again, as I said earlier, it was yet another example of how little I know about not just New Orleans, but Louisiana in general. As I read more New Orleans history, and get to know my city better with each read, I find myself expanding my former-tunnel vision view focusing on New Orleans only to expand out into Louisiana as well. It’s a truly fascinating state, really–as someone said in the documentary, there are three Louisianas: New Orleans; north Louisiana; which is really part of the Protestant Bible Belt and could just as easily be part of Arkansas; and south Louisiana, which is overwhelmingly French and Catholic; heavily Cajun, in all honesty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Atchafalaya basin, too; I sort of have an idea about writing about that area. Most of my Louisiana fiction has been confined to writing about New Orleans, or places on the I-10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and sometimes dabbling on the North Shore. I am sure every state has just as rich and diverse and colorful a history as Louisiana/New Orleans; but I also don’t live there, and Louisiana with its strange mix of Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, and Americans, with the attendant cultures, brews up a strange and endlessly fascinating gumbo.

I realized also yesterday while going through my blog drafts that I have never published my blog entry about reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, which was what sent me down the Louisiana/New Orleans history rabbit hole in the first place.

empire of sin

“The crime,” as detectives would later tell the newspapers, was “one of the most gruesome in the annals of the New Orleans police.”

At five a.m. on the sultry morning of May 23, 1918, the bodies of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, Italian immigrants who ran a small grocery store in a remote section of the city, were found sprawled across the disordered bedroom of the living quarters behind their store. Both had been savagely attacked, apparently while they slept. Joseph Maggio lay face-up on the blood-sodden bed, his skull split by a deep, jagged gash several inches long; Catherine Maggio, her own skull nearly hewn in two, was stretched out on the floor beneath him. Each victim’s throat had been slashed with a sharp instrument.

A blood-smeared ax and shaving razor–obviously the murder weapons–had been found on the floor nearby.

The book opens with an examination of the strange case of New Orleans’ most famous serial killer: the Axeman. Julie Smith wrote an entire novel  based in the story called The Axeman’s Jazz; it might be the second or third Skip Langdon novel. Poppy Z. Brite wrote a short story with the same name, and of course, American Horror Story: Coven also included the Axeman in its litany of past New Orleans horrors–in the Ryan Murphy version, he stumbled into the Robicheaux School for Girls (read: witches) and they killed him; his ghost haunting the house ever since. The mystery of the Axeman’s identity, of course, has never been solved–as well as the why.

Empire of Sin, however, isn’t about the Axeman entirely; it’s really a history of the Storyville district (again, another notorious part of New Orleans history, probably best known for its appearance in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, which probably, with its creepy pedophilia, wouldn’t hold up too well today), and really focuses on the man known as the mayor of Storyville, Tom Anderson, who rose to great wealth, notoriety, and political power through his successful bordellos there–even going so far as to providing the district with its own police force. It’s a story of immorality, the struggle between reformers trying to turn New Orleans into a city free from sin (they won small victories but New Orleans remains New Orleans to this day) and Anderson’s struggle against those “virtuous reforms.” He eventually failed, and Storyville was shut down, but Krist tells a fascinating story, extrapolating his tale of Storyville’s struggle to stay open and functioning (the money being made there brought with it the ability to, of course, buy off the police and politicians), along with the stories of corruption, murder, prostitution, violence and racism extant in the city at the time. It’s also a story of how Storyville also, surprisingly enough, gave birth to jazz music, and provided a way for musicians of color to make a successful living playing music. Storyville was the incubator that provided sustenance to the musicians playing this new form of popular music, enabling them to make a living while developing a wholly American form of music.

Reading Empire of Sin is what sent me down the road to reading history, as I said before, and as I love history, it also made me aware of just how little about New Orleans I actually do know. Discovering little throwaway bits in the book–that there were male prostitutes who serviced men with “more exotic tastes”–reminded me of how frequently, and almost completely, queer history has been successfully erased, and that made me start thinking about, well, doing something more about it. Reading this book inspired two short stories I’ve not finished–“The Blues before Dawn” and “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman”–and also inspired a potential series set during the time. It’s also what gave me the idea for my collection of noir/crime/horror stories that I want to write, Monsters of New Orleans.

I cannot recommend Empire of Sin highly enough.