Lit Louisiana highlights the state’s contemporary literature and brings significant books and authors from the past to the readers of Verite.
Alex Jennings’ “The Ballad of Perilous Graves” captures in a novel the locations, languages, and magical reality that is New Orleans.
The book is pure escapism but with parallels to reality — a piano player named “Doctor Professor” also called “Fess.” Characters stop at the “old beauty supply store at the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields” and walk through City Park. There are references to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, a time when Jennings moved to the city. But ghosts visit city streets and young people investigate a graveyard at night, activities that readers know have an element of truth.
The author’s enthusiasm for his narrative comes through, as do the obsessions of the young— comic books, graffiti, gender, and romance. The author references traditional young adult literature like “The Phantom Tollbooth” (but not Harry Potter), which may have provided some inspiration for the flying, glass-bottomed trolly.
Much of the invention, however, is the author’s own, like graffiti that ripples through the air or a cemetery with background music “just for the dead folks.” He captures the language of the city with words like “oogly” and “steppin’” (because the Five-oh is coming), and, a familiar beauty of expression, “Here I’m is.”
The book’s most compelling gift is its articulation of Louisiana phenomena, like stepping outside on a hot evening to be assaulted by air that is “hot and close — like dog breath, but without the smell.” A school’s aroma is “Crayons, glitter, oil soap, and cooking.” The name of the school is “Dryades Academy, which looks more like a courthouse than a place of learning.”
At the National Book Festival, Jennings told me that he asked himself “What if Pippi Longstocking was a redbone girl from Central City?” His answer is entertaining and unique.
Historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall passed away recently but her book “Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th century” (Louisiana State University Press, 1992) is an enduring resource. The book contains facts about the tribes, occupations, and contributions of ancestors who entered the state. Her research for the book resulted in a searchable database linked here.
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