In “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Joyce,” an essay written for The American Scholar’s Summer 2004 issue, Sam Anderson wrote of James Joyce’s Ulysses that:
[It] became not exactly a novel but something else, either the 783-page footnote to a city or a book that had subsumed that city as a footnote to itself. They’re like opposite ends of a telescope; look through Dublin and see a giant Ulysses, through Ulysses a tiny Dublin. It’s impossible to tell which generated the other or which requires the other more urgently as explanation.
New Orleans has the same problem. Like New York, Chicago, and to a lesser extent Los Angeles, it’s a city that’s become so defined by its cultural representations that it’s hard to separate the real city from the myths that surround it. For Mississippi teenagers looking for a place to get blitzed on whiskey without being arrested, New Orleans is Party Central, the vomit-and-piss-stained Bourbon Street, “show us your tits!,” and drive-through liquor shops. For Francophiles, it’s a haven for crumbling, old architecture and French-American history. For those who like their mystery ladled on thick with braised chicken feet, there are countless Voodoo (or Vodou, or Houdou, or whatever) tours through raised-tomb cemeteries and dark swamps around the levees of the Mississippi River. More than anything, it’s known justifiably as Mecca for gourmets and gourmands alike. It’s constantly being described as a “jambalaya of cultures” or a “gumbo of cultural heritage” or some other silliness.
Now that you can gamble at Harrah’s Casino at the end of Canal Street, it’s quickly become seen as the Las Vegas of the South. Or, rather, it would be seen that way if it hadn’t already been identified as “The Big Easy” long ago. It’s the city’s reputation for loose, or at least relaxed, morals and fluctuating social standards that cling to it like summer humidity. Mardi Gras, which is technically a single day, is a two-month license to host a multitude of parades, concerts, and debaucheries. Much is made of Creole culture and the fuzzy nature of racial delineations in the city.
So, how do you get beneath the surface of a city that Lafcadio Hearn was already describing, in the early 1880s, in this manner?
At half-past nine or ten o’clock the American city is all alive—a blaze of gas and a whirl of pleasure. The old French town is asleep; the streets are deserted; and the shadow of a pedestrian makes a moving black speck against the moonlight on the pavement only at long intervals. Creoledom wakes up as slowly and cautiously as possible; and has not fairly begun to enter upon the business of the day until the sun has warmed the streets.
Rob Walker has found a way.
Five years ago, I stumbled onto Walker’s five-day diary in Slate. He’d just moved to New Orleans from New York, for reasons that he makes clear early on:
Q: Why did you choose New Orleans? Some cities really do have personalities, good or bad. One of the themes in the background of the very fine David Shields book Black Planet, about a season spent obsessing over the Seattle Supersonics, is the insecurity that is apparently fundamental to the character of Seattle. That’s a city personality that I would dislike. I lived in Dallas, and the place seemed to tremble with insecurity, always wondering what the coasts think. Houston, on the other hand, is authentically uninterested in the opinions of outsiders. Austin is smug, still convinced that it’s Paris in the ’20s. New York is New York. Boston isn’t. Denver has no personality. Neither does Orlando. San Francisco is all about convincing anyone who listens that it is the future—it’s the new New York! Miami is a bit like that, too. And in a way so is Atlanta. Anyway, I like a city that doesn’t waste time trying to convince anyone of anything—I like a city that’s chauvinistic.
Beyond tossing off the first dead-on description I’d seen of why I had to leave Dallas, where I’d grown up, Walker’s writing was succinct without being blunt, funny without being snide. It searched for truth, but in a bemused way. His writing got at the contemporary New Orleans that I’d visited a few times simply by, well, keeping it simple. He was mildly interested in all the New Orleans myths, but he was more interested in the day-to-day lives of its inhabitants. He opined about why people insisted on shooting bullets into the air on New Year’s Eve, about a bowling alley that also served as a rowdy rock concert hall and bar (I’ve been there, too.), about getting his car stolen on his second night in town. This s the New Orleans—dilapidated, with a high crime rate, economically depressed, weirdly jovial—that I’ve seen in my numerous visits there… but had rarely seen in literature, film, or song.
So, I kept Walker’s New Orleans writing—he also writes on marketing and financial matters—in the back of my head. Eventually, I found his website, where I discovered that he had continued to write his “Letters to New Orleans” after the Slate gig ended. He called the essays “pointless, sporadic, and free.” I agree with the latter two sentiments, but not with the first.
I came to his site at the right time, as he’d just released his first collection of “Letters” as a $3 zine, available directly from him. Now, I’m a sucker for zines. Perhaps it’s because I grew up loving comics. The cheap paper; the seemingly flimsy, ephemeral nature of the contents; the near-invitation to fold them into your pocket and take them along on a long bike ride; the crude, homemade typesetting—somehow, it all speaks to me. So, I ordered a copy.
For the money, it’s one of the best book purchases I’ve made. Walker includes the diary entries, but also essays about attending a black gospel service (Walker is white.), performing in a masked Carnival krewe, walking alongside a jazz funeral, the absurdity of local politics, and uses a local bar’s demise as a means to explore gentrification in the city. It’s a surprising, consistently insightful collection.
The best piece is a concise, kindhearted profile of soul singer Ernie K-Doe. K-Doe sang the R&B hit “Mother-In-Law” about 40 years ago, and became a New Orleans fixture because of his sheer audacity and weirdness. Walker writes:
Later, [K-Doe] had a stint as a radio DJ, and would play music between lengthy, erratic soliloquies that focused on himself and his career, and often concluded with the emphatic declaration “I’m cocky, but I’m good!” or the equally spirited self-exhortation, “Burn, K-Doe, burn!” Sometimes that station still plays recordings of these stream-of-consciousness monologues, and they’re amazing; people actually collect them.
It’s these sly, offhand details—“people actually collect them”—combined with an unsentimental love of New Orleans that sets Walker apart. He mixes personal observation (Walker tells of a visit to K-Doe’s club shortly before the singer’s death.), close analysis, and expansive cultural commentary. In a short profile, Walker gives a glimpse of the Crescent City, through K-Doe, that’s more honest than most profiles of the city’s many celebrity chefs.
Walker published a second collection of his New Orleans essays, which I snapped up, and has combined both of them, along with some new material, into a terrific, honest-to-god book: Letters from New Orleans. Its interior design features an elegant, open use of white space. The cover, designed by Walker’s spouse E. Weiner, keeps the feel of the book’s zine roots. Grungy, smudgy, it looks like a graffiti splatter that’s somehow classy. Its size is small, compact—it feels like the perfect accompaniment to a walking tour.
In a way, it is. Walker focuses primarily on the non-famous people who make the city run, the unmasked faces behind the parades, the debates that rage in restaurants and that spill over onto the op-ed pages. Letters from New Orleans is streetwise, conversational in tone, unimpressed by cant, and willing to grapple with the city’s weird, compelling racial heritage. It explores odd traditions—the Zulu blackface parade that persists; the four-hour lunch at Galatoire’s; the rich debutante culture that’s dying out in most American cities—but watches them without resorting to cliché.
Walker reminds me of New Yorker master Joseph Mitchell, who wrote his deceptively simple essays in the world about New York’s odd, un-famous inhabitants and the quiet, strange world beneath the glitz that made Manhattan possible. Walker’s not that good—no one is—but it’s still a shame to learn that Walker has moved from the Crescent City. Like John Kennedy Toole in A Confederacy of Dunces and Poppy Z. Brite in Liquor and Prime, Walker writes about New Orleans from ground level. He returns New Orleans to the place I’ve actually experienced, the realm of the real.