Here's how to read your way through New Orleans
As a 19-year-old in Akron, Ohio, I somehow ended up with a copy of Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour. After tearing through that book and, subsequently, the rest of the Mayfair Witches series, I saved my pennies and made a beeline south for my first visit to New Orleans. Since then, I’ve been unable to shake the spell the streets of that the most unique of all American cities cast over me. Nowadays, every time I find myself at Louis Armstrong Airport heading back to New York City after one of my numerous forays down to The Big Easy, I am compelled to find a way to stay there—even if it is only in spirit. Through the pages of books like these, I’ve found a way to keep my feet securely planted at the foot of Canal Street (with a to-go cup in hand and WWOZ streaming on my laptop, of course).
- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy — Binx Bolling is on a search in this classic Southern novel (with hints of Kierkegaard and St. Thomas Aquinas). For what? Perhaps it’s a film star worthy of emulating as he ambles through the French Quarter. Maybe it’s a salve to heal his spiritual despair and his cousin Kate’s emerging madness. Or it could be as simple as the most fetching secretary in New Orleans to accompany him to the movies. Throughout this search, Percy creates a vivid illustration of the Crescent City as it prepares for its yearly bacchanal. The Moviegoer displays the sort of intellectual and freewheeling moxie that makes New Orleans what it is.
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole — For many, when they think of the New Orleans novel, this rollicking tale starring the obese, flatulent and snobbishly overeducated Ignatius J. Reilly is the first that comes to mind. Without a doubt, the streets and neon personalities of the Vieux Carre come alive in the sidesplitting adventures of Reilly and his friends,” but the subtle undercurrent of sadness that fills this imaginative tale elevates it beyond just a comedic yarn. Toole, who committed suicide before Confederacy of Dunces was published, perfectly captures the language and pace of New Orleans as well as the poignancy that informs its art.
- Nine Lives by Dan Baum — The nine stories here span time from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to the arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but all are indelibly part of the kaleidoscope that is New Orleans. Throughout the book, Baum deftly conveys the polyrhythmic joy and levee-breaking pain that imbue each. While each of the nine lives portrayed are insightful, among the more intriguing are Joyce Montana, wife of Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, the iconic leader of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and Joann Guidos, owner of a Marigny neighborhood bar who was once John Guidos. Uptown, Downtown, Lakeside, Riverside… this book has a story in each part of town.
- New Orleans: Mon Amour by Andrei Codrescu — There’s a quote in Codrescu’s essay, “The Muse is Always Half Dressed in New Orleans,” that gets to the core of why some people—usually flaneurs, dreamers and drinkers—feel so at home in that city: “Old cities soothe and ease the pain of living because wherever you are someone else was there before, had troubles worse than yours, and passed on. I don’t see how people can inhabit spanking new suburbs without succumbing to terminal anxiety. We need the dead to make us feel alive. In New Orleans they’re at it full time.” Anxiety is anathema to the New Orleanian way of life, and this collection of essays from the longtime NPR commentator is as comforting as pouring an Abita into a “to-go” cup and meandering down Frenchmen Street on a Sunday afternoon.
- The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury — Asbury, who also wrote The Gangs of New York as well as The Barbary Coast, had a thing for profiling the vice that permeated some of the great American cities and his foray into New Orleans is no different. Vivid tales like that of the female brawler Annie Christmas, voodoo queen Marie Lavaeu, and the infamous red light district known as Storyville make this a true page turner for anybody interested in the Big Easy.
- Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren — While Algren is most often associated with the South Side of Chicago, in this novel (whose title was made famous by Lou Reed), he follows Dove Linkhorn on his sordid adventures with the prostitutes, hustlers, and thieves of Depression-era New Orleans. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at the turtle soup at Commanders Palace the same way again.
- The Witching Hour by Anne Rice — New Orleans is many things—a city with a laissez faire view on drinking, the birthplace of Jazz (the only truly American form of music)—but above all it is a place perpetually teeming with the otherworldly. In this sprawling epic, Rice follows the Garden District’s Mayfair clan of witches as they are pursued by their cunning familiar Lasher. There are several other books in the Mayfair Witches series, but not one of them matches The Witching Hour when it comes to bringing to life the eerie beauty that ensconces New Orleans.
- Shake the Devil Off by Ethan Brown — For all of the good times that roll through the streets of New Orleans, there has always been an equal amount of violence matching it. Zack Bowen and Addie Hall were two freewheeling French Quarter characters who seemed to be in love as Hurricane Katrina swept into town, but a virulent mix of Zack’s PTSD from his wartime experience, hard drugs, and shared pain led to a crime that is still spoken about in hushed tones around New Orleans.
- Treat it Gentle by Sidney Bechet —For a man who was once involved in a shoot-out in Paris, the music of Sidney Bechet (Woody Allen’s musical hero) is nothing if not sweet and gentle… and straight from the 7th Ward of New Orleans. In this book, that Bechet dictated from his death bed, you can feel the impact that New Orleans had on a whole generation of musicians, from Jelly Roll Morton to Louis Armstrong.
- Coming Through The Slaughter by Michael Ondaatjie — Told in hallucinatory prose, Ondaatjie (The English Patient) tells the poignant tale of Buddy Bolden—the man “who invented jazz”—and his poignant descent into a whiskey-drenched insanity. The bipolar nature of New Orleans, strung tightly between ingenious vision and creeping darkness, pushes Bolden away from his pioneering ways and towards the place he’d spend the last 24 years of his life: the Louisiana State Insane Asylum.