Crocodile Rock

Oh, Louisiana.

My beautiful, beautiful state. Louisiana is basically a lush, fertile state chock full of important natural resources, and also sports the nickname “Sportsmen’s Paradise,” because outdoor sports–hunting, fishing, etc.–are abundant here. Lots of hunting, lots of fishing, that sort of thing.

But Louisiana also is known for corruption, being backwards in many ways, and some truly bizarre politics/politicians. It’s easy to say that Louisianans have a very cynical view of politics and politicians–no one is really surprised when one of our elected officials is caught doing something criminal or morally questionable; the basic presumption is that they’re all crooks and liars unless proven otherwise. We can never forget that one gubernatorial election featured bumper stickers and campaign slogans that read Vote for the crook, it’s important–when Governor Edwards, convicted for taking bribes in office, was running again after serving time and his opponent was notorious racist and former Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

And for the record, that election was in the early 1990’s–not that long ago.

As I said yesterday, I watched a four hour documentary on Hulu this past week called Murder in the Bayou, about what is called the “Jeff Davis 8”–eight women murdered over a period of less than three years in and around the Jefferson Davis Parish village of Jennings. The women all  had issues with drugs, and also came from really poor backgrounds. The documentary was interesting, and seemed geared to the idea that there was a serial killer operating in the parish–and for some reason, the cops simply couldn’t track said killer down, and eventually the killings stopped.

I also remembered that there was a book about the murders, with the same title, by New Orleans journalist Ethan Brown, and I had a copy. So, after I finished watching the documentary Friday afternoon, I got the book down from the shelves and looked to see if there were any photographs included. There weren’t–just the flyer with the reward posted, with photos of all the victims on it. I started reading…

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On May 20, 2005, Jerry Jackson, a soft-spoken slim African-American retiree with a short salt-and-pepper Afro, prepared to cast a fishing line from a hulking bridge over the Grand Marais Canal on the outskirts of Jennings in southwest Louisiana. Jackson peered down at the muddy rush below, the corroded, cylindrical rain pipes along the canal belching water, the collapsed pedestrian bridge far out in the distance. As he prepped his fishing line, Jackson imagined the catch that day, white perch, a small bass with a strong spine that’s so abundant in Louisiana it’s the state’s official freshwater fish. In low-lying southwest Louisiana, where rain is constantly siphoned to prevent flooding, drainage canals are as common as the perch. These canals provide sustenance for poor Louisianans for whom fishing is both a generations-old tradition and a day-to-day necessity. For hobbyists such as Jackson, who made the approximately ten-mile trip to Jennings from his cramped trailer on a dead-end street in nearby Welsh, drainage canal democratize fishing. Expensive shrimp boats and fishing equipment aren’t necessary–all one needs to do is drop a line into the water.

As Jackson peered deeper into the Grand Marais Canal, he spied the outline of a human body. “It had come up on the news that someone had stole some mannequins,” Jackson told me, “so I thought that one of the mannequins ended up in the water somehow.” Jackson focused his eyes on the figure. “I saw flies, and mannequins don’t attract flies.”

It didn’t take me long to get into the book to realize there was information, crucial information, about the victims in the book that wasn’t included in the documentary; in fact, the documentary left a lot of important information out. Yes, the women all had addiction issues, but they also were sex workers–turning to sex work to either get drugs, or to get the money to buy drugs. The police didn’t cooperate much with Mr. Brown, and the sister of one of the victims played a very prominent role in the documentary; she was only mentioned by name once in the book. Brown also shared the information that many of the victims were witnesses to other crimes, and theorized they were all killed to silence them–and that it wasn’t a serial killer after all. Brown also isn’t convinced completely that the police were so inept and incompetent to handle these kinds of investigations (something that came up a lot in the documentary), but that the parish police were actually corrupt, involved in the drug trade, and connecting all the dots also led to a peripheral involvement by a powerful politician. Naturally, the police and the politician disagree with Mr. Brown’s theories and conclusions…but he also includes, in the book, other crimes in the parish that may or may not have been connected to the murders, as well as corruption within the police department; things that were not in the documentary.

One of the things that struck me, while watching and again when reading the book, is how tragic the cycle of poverty is in these small towns, not just in Louisiana, but across the country. The class divide–marked in Jennings by literally railroad tracks that separate the good part of town from the bad–is truly staggering; I would imagine it’s much the same in big cities only not as obvious. The poor and uneducated people in places like Jennings are trapped in a terrible cycle of poverty that they cannot seem to break, which is truly sad, and the disruptive nature of the families they were born into doesn’t help much, either. And once someone starts spiraling down into drug addiction, there’s nowhere to turn to for help getting off the drugs…and there’s no money for rehab, which is incredibly expensive.

I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to stuck like that, with no hope for the future.

The book is very well written, and it’s not terribly long; I read it in one day, and it’s a terrific read. I do recommend it, and I also recommend watching the documentary as well. I’m curious about why they chose to leave some stuff out of the documentary that’s in the book–perhaps it has something to do with both using the same title but not adapting the book or using it as source material, or something along those lines–but it’s very interesting to see the two very different takes on the murders.

And yes, learning more about these murders did, in fact, give me an idea for another Chanse novel; the first idea I’ve had for a Chanse novel since I wrote Murder in the Arts District. I can easily see fictionalizing this story, with Chanse as the investigating private eye…or someone else, really; it doesn’t have to be Chanse, and the issues at play here–the disposability of drug addicted sex workers, class distinction, and corruption in the parish power structure–are things I would love to explore in a novel.

Like I don’t have anything else to write already, right?

And now back to the spice mines.

I Feel for You

Adam Rippon is going to the Olympics as the first openly gay American figure skater to compete in Olympic history.

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Let’s not be coy, though–there have been plenty of gay male figure skaters throughout the history of the sport–but most came out (or were outed) after their Olympic-eligible careers were over. (And Adam Kenworthy–not a figure skater– is also out this year, but he wasn’t out when he competed in Sochi.)

One of the things that has always fascinated me about figure skating is the contradiction evident in its gender roles. Men are, while being artistic, also supposed to read as masculine and not feminine; likewise the women (it’s still called Ladies’ Figure Skating, for the record) are supposed to be feminine, graceful and lady-like, rather than athletic; a feminine and graceful skater would always win over someone who wasn’t as graceful but was more of an athlete than a ballet dancer. This bipolarity at the heart of figure skating kept gay male skaters deep in the closet, particularly if they were American men; Russian men had no problem with wearing gloves and performing ballet on the ice–but at the same time, those Russian men (Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov, Ilia Kulik, Alexei Yagudin, and Yevgeny Pluschenko won every Olympic gold medal between 1992 and 2006) clearly were athletes, flying across the ice in footstep sequences with their feet and blades changing directions and edges as rapidly as a machine gun fires; dizzying fast spins with beautiful positions; and of course, landing quad and triple jumps with the greatest of ease, and almost always on the beat of the music they were performing to.

There was also an unspoken understanding that being openly gay would hurt a skater in the marks, which were often subjective, frequently unfair, and, according to the ISU, above reproach. Rudy Galindo was the first openly gay American skater to win US Nationals in 1996, and went on to win a bronze medal at worlds that year; the next openly gay skater to win the US title was Adam Rippon, some twenty years later. Between them was flamboyant Johnny Weir, who didn’t come out until after his Olympic-eligible career was over… (I might add that, despite being US champion and a world medalist in 1996, the USFSA chose not to send Rudy to any of the Grand Prix events the following season; a clear indication to him that his Olympic-eligible career was over, and he went pro.)

Rippon, incidentally, finished fourth at the Olympic trials this year, but was chosen to go to the Olympics anyway; selected over a heterosexual skater who finished with the silver medal. Have things changed with male figure skating since Rudy’s big win in 1996?

As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve always wanted to write a book about a gay figure skater. I did in Jackson Square Jazz, with the character of Bryce Bell, a US Olympic hopeful who is introduced to the reader as someone a very drunken Scotty picked up at a French Quarter gay bar, only to see him competing that same night at Skate America, being held in New Orleans for the first (and clearly fictional) time. (As a joke, I also had Bryce become the first skater in history to land a quad axel; this has still not happened in real life, and may not ever happen.) But Bryce’s skating was relatively unimportant to the story and plot of the book; although his remaining closeted as a skater was.

I never felt that I was able to truly explore the issues of being a gay, Olympic-eligible, American figure skater in the book; Bryce was a supporting character, and the story wasn’t told from his point of view (I’ve been tempted to bring him back, but can never figure out a way to do it organically; just forcibly grafting him onto a story because I want to just feels wrong).

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Ironically, Adam didn’t win Nationals until after he came out. Coming out–and being able to truly be himself for the first time–paid off. He’s a much better skater than he was before; but I do remember thinking at the time he came out, well, you’re never going to win nationals now. But by embracing himself for who he really is, he changed; he found a look and costumes that work for him–he used to have this mop of blonde curls–and his short program this year, to what Paul and I immediately recognized as a gay techno dance remix from back in the day–is one for the ages.

So, does the central premise of the noir figure skating novel I’ve wanted to write–a skater being forced into the closet and not allowed to be himself so that I can explore not only the dynamics of what masculinity is but the class issues inherent in figure skating (I still haven’t posted about my thoughts on I Tonya, which have everything to do with femininity vs. athleticism and class); the masks skaters are forced to wear in order to play the game and get the marks they deserve to win–does that premise still exist today? As far as I know, Adam and Rudy are the only American skaters to come out and skate at the Olympic eligible level; are there others? Is coming out still a risk to your career as a male skater?

Probably so.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.