Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.
Andrei Codrescu, New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings From the City
(Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006).
This collection of essays, jibes, and enconiums, New Orleans, Mon Amour by Andrei Codrescu, is a record of the novelist-pundit's ongoing dialogue with the city, which, as fate and FEMA would have it, may never again exist in the form he had come to know and love.
It's good then that, all unknowingly, this believer in synchronicity, has penned many an incisive line here distilling the essence of the city, a toilet water composed of "rotting crawfish shell, steaming piles of fresh mule doo-doo, garbage-truck juice, decomposing small rodents, beer urine, and night-blooming jasmine and magnolias."
Still, the real essence of the city is a "mentalité," as the French would say. Steeped in the past, the city is filled with cemeteries and their spectral inhabitants. "Ghosts and pirates are as thick as the morning fog on certain days in New Orleans. You open your notebook at some outdoor café in the Vieux Carré and find yourself holding instead intense congress with the shadows between the huge leaves of the palm or the fig above you." This interplay of the living and the dead is so casual that, for example, Codrescu customarily takes his morning coffee at Lafayette Cemetery. No, he mentions, they don't have waiters among the crypts, the author has to carry his own mug to a promising headstone, which serves as a café table.
Indeed, he suggests it is this rummaging through the wares and thoughts of the dead that supplies the costumes and tropes for many a Mardi Gras crew of paraders.
Along with this trait, the city goes to extremes in avoiding what other American cities cherish, such as their obsession with celebrities and their tearing down of venerable, lovely edifices so as to throw up new-fangled eyesores. One of Codrescu's most rambunctious, jolliest discussion of this aspect of the city comes in how he characterizes denizens' disdainful attitudes toward cars.
Pedestrians still own the streets. ... Cars haven't completely won. On hot summer nights, at midnight, the citizens sit on their stoops drinking beer and conversing with car drivers stopped in the middle of the street. These are not really cars but slow-moving gazebos, portable chaise lounges.
Most extremist of all, of course, from the standpoint of American norms, is the way New Orleans is libidinously intense and unashamed. "The only religion [of the city] ... is Carnival, a cult of sensuousness, sin, unconsciousness, dreams, masques, shifting identities, exaltation of the flesh. New Orleans is all flesh."
None of this should be taken to imply that Codrescu balks at portraying the negative traits, mainly bureaucratic-corporate, that affect the city like the pox. There are pictures of state politicians who roll over for polluting chemical companies; racist, bloodthirsty cops, David Duke; and, worst of all, legalized gambling. "With big gambling came big trouble. ... with the arrival of the big boys with the big money, the local pols started seeing dancing sugar plums. The rush to the trough [of bribes and payoffs] became frantic."
New Orleans, corrupt and debauched but also filled with the juice of life that has been squeezed out of so many U.S. metropolises. We can only hope. as he does in a final, bittersweet envoi, that with the Orleanist Diaspora after Katrina, other American towns and cities will be seeded with its haunting joie de vivre.