Monday, January 28, 2008

Father Hollywood Recommends...

I'm about a third of the way through a really enjoyable book called New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City by Andrei Codrescu.

Codrescu is a Romanian born New Orleanian who is a professor at LSU in Baton Rouge. He is also a commentator for NPR. Amour is a collection of his essays about New Orleans from 1985-2005.

This is the kind of book that is best read in New Orleans - or at least in Gretna where I live. I'm reading the book aloud to my wife. We're both suffering with sore throats and Mrs. Hollywood is laid out on the couch with a fever that I hope I don't catch - but probably will. So, we're lounging in the parlor in our robes with a fire going, reading delightful words about the place that surrounds us, the place we also love.

Codrescu's book is a mélange of the acute observations and descriptive prose of Alexis deTocqueville, mixed with the brevity, wit, and the storyteller's eye for ironic people and exotic places of O. Henry, tossed into a French press with strong coffee and a touch of gin, and plunged into a frothy brew with an intoxicating aroma that is best enjoyed served in cups and saucers in unhurried and languid sips.

Codrescu is a storyteller who tells stories about stories, about the telling of those stories, and about the storytelling itself - which is the stuff of stories and storytellers. He weaves beautiful imagery with his words - which are spun from the perspective of outsider-turned-insider, a left-wing European intellectual who seems to really want to be a vegetarian, and yet who just can't figure out his fascination and love for right-wing American red meat - especially the kind that one usually finds baking on the side of the road with its feet in the air, or something that creeps out of a swamp and looks at you suspiciously from the plate.

Codrescu may be a native Romanian, but he is a Louisianan through and through. Like Christianity, one can be converted to Louisiananism and New Orleanianity. And it is often the convert who is the most zealous.

Some of his prose is peppered with his leftist politics as well as a pinch of NPR-ish academician snobbery. And his emphasis on voodoo, quirky novelists, tombs, fig trees, and naked people is, to be sure, overstated. But the author is writing about his New Orleans, and he is truly in love with his subject - hence the title "Mon Amour" ("My Love" for the Francophonically-impaired). New Orleans really is unique, and the author conveys it well - with humor, with charm, and with affection in this collection of essays compiled over two decades of Crescent City life.

Although I'm not yet done with the book, I recommend it already.

The message of the book is clear: New Orleans is unique. The author points out that people from elsewhere either hate us or love us. I think most of us who live here love it - even if we gripe about this and that. I do think that a lot of other places in the country would have simply become a ghost town after Katrina - whereas the people of this region continue to fight for their Amour and are determined to remain, even if irrationally, in a tempestuous relationship with their fiery home rather than to throw in the towel, divorce, and get remarried to a sensible and staid suburb Somewhere Else. We are determined to "make it work."

Part of that determination involves a kind of graveyard humor combined with a resolution to live - not just to survive - but to live. The French term is joie-de-vivre. There is another term as well: élan.

In the preface, the author writes about the days right after Katrina. His home in Baton Rouge was "filled with poet refugees from New Orleans" (p.10) - people who had no idea what kind of condition their homes were in - or even if anything was left at all. This is a bizarre feeling that I remember all too well. They had escaped New Orleans in a stolen school bus. One of the author's friends "cooked four-star meals because, as he said, 'I will not have the apocalypse without style!'" Codrescu continues: "On various nights we had black mushrooms in oyster sauce with dumplings, pad thai, cold shrimp with new potatoes and corn, gazpacho, and dobache cake. With the appropriate wines. That's New Orleans awright - it may be the end of the world, but that's no reason to become uncivilized." (p. 11)

I know exactly what the author is talking about.

While I was working with a few fellow pastors and Lutheran laymen doing relief work after Katrina, we were headquartered in a church parsonage in Metairie. The house was powered by two large generators, and was filled by a motley crew of local Lutheran clergymen and parishioners, of adventure-seeking young Pentecostal volunteers from up north who had never been to the bayou, of hip veterinarians and animal lovers from California, and a few journalists from the New York Times. We put in long days on boats and ATVs. In the midst of the surreal emptiness, of camouflaged soldiers with rifles, of putrid flood water standing in residential neighborhoods, of military helicopters and deserted dilapidated houses - our little band of misfits was served fine meals by the owner and the loyal staff of Barecca's - one of those elegant neighborhood restaurants New Orleans is known for. They opened up in order to feed cops, soldiers, and volunteers for free. We ate (and were treated) like royalty. Amid the uncertainty and destruction, the staff still took pride in their culinary prowess. We were not eating MREs and hot dogs.

One of the photojournalists - a cranky French atheist whose craft took him everywhere from Paris to Palestine, from America to Afghanistan, demonstrated to the local clergy whom he had befriended the European art of opening a champagne bottle with a saber. Lacking the proper military accoutrements, he improvised: popping the cork ceremoniously with a machete, to the cheers and back slapping of his new comrades in arms. We drank champagne, smoked cigars, and ate fine food at the end of the day as the helicopters chopped their way through the heat.

Now that's joie-de-vivre. That's élan. That's New Orleans. That's why we love it. I suspect that's a good bit of why Andrei Codrescu speaks of it as his Amour.

6 comments:

Benjamin J. Ulledalen said...

"Codrescu may be a native Romanian, but he is a Louisianan through and through. Like Christianity, one can be converted to Louisiananism and New Orleanianity. And it is often the convert who is the most zealous."

I am a convert to Lutheranism and I find myself to be easily angered when I see the Liturgy and Law/Gospel preaching abandoned or put in a corner in favor of the superficiality I thought I left behind in American Christianity. I find myself sympathizing with the Society of Saint Polycarp (that pesky 7th rule is giving me pause, although I find myself less and less able to disagree with it. ;))

As a frustrated and lost (except of course when it comes to the Church) product of public school and Walt Disney, it is refreshing to hear that one can be converted to "New Orleanity," although I don't plan on converting to it per se. It is the idea of any sort of "cultural conversion" that sounds refreshing to a victim Mainstream American "culture."

Keep up the good work, Fr. Hollywood! It is nice to be able to read the blog of someone with whom I agree both theologicaly and culturally! I am not a Southroner, but I would consider myself a Southron sympathizer, thanks to Dr. Wilson and yourself.

Pax Christi,

Benjamin J. Ulledalen
Billings, MT

Joe Greene said...

Father Hollywood,

Can you shed any light from a local perspective on the Republican primary in LA? I know that Ron Paul has filed to contest the results. Something about votes not being counted?

Father Hollywood said...

Benjamin:

Consider yourself to be an honorary, naturalized Southerner. "South" is as much a state of mind as it is a cardinal point on the compass.

Being an adult convert to Lutheranism myself, I am particularly sensitive about the liturgy and the sacraments - holy treasures too often taken for granted by "cradle Lutherans."

Wow! To have my name in the same sentence with Dr. Wilson! No doubt, you're referring to Dr. Clyde Wilson, professor emeritus out of the University of South Carolina. I had the privilege to meet him (and Dr. Tobias Lanz) at Maurice's Barbecue in the capital of the Palmetto State.

Father Hollywood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Father Hollywood said...

Joe:

I confess that I don't understand the system (Louisiana politics is anything but simple). LA has both a caucus and a primary. It seems that the caucus changed the rules very late in the game, which resulted in a lot of Paul delegates to lose their vote. I don't know how accurate this is, but this is what I have consistently heard.

I am hardly surprised or shocked. In fact, I would have been shocked if there were no reports of shenanigans.

There was an account of it on Lew Rockwell's website here.

I hope this helps...

Benjamin J. Ulledalen said...

Yes, that Dr. Wilson.

Oh, and thanks for the recomendation of Dixie Broadcasting. I am now addicted to Bluegrass from listening to it and a more liberal (although still Southern) "Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour."