David Lummis’s second installation of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans was recently published. Whereas the first part, reviewed here, was more a “lighthearted and irreverent and even campy” (as Lummis himself describes it) romp in and around the French Quarter, Part 2 is a more serious work. A more serious tone, a more serious topic. And a more true voice, I suspect, of Lummis. And for that, a far richer gift to the reader. Lummis lays bare his soul as he writes of the tormented soul-searching done by the last son of an old-school blue-blood New Orleans family, and the struggle of those who love him to keep him from losing himself in the process.
As Katrina approaches New Orleans, B. Sammy Singleton is on the search for his missing friend, Catfish Beaucoeur. Sammy, in a role similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is the narrator but not the star of CSCNO2. In his frenetic search for Catfish, Sammy encounters Lee Ann, Catfish’s oldest friend. And when it is clear Catfish is well and truly missing, Lee Ann decides it’s time for Sammy to know what Lee Ann herself knows to be the truth of Catfish’s tortured past.
And in this manner, Lummis takes us to 1970s New Orleans and pre-Civil War Louisiana. And the curses that were cast in the long-ago past and the long spidery legs that still stretch and scratch into the present.
Although it is Catfish that is the subject of the novel and for whom the reader will root, it is Lee Ann for whom the reader will relate: Her struggle to love, and be loved, in an imperfect way but in a way as pure as imaginable. Even when she knows it is utterly and completely hopeless.
Upon one reunion of the teen-aged Catfish and Lee Ann, with Catfish recalcitrant as always for having had to leave Lee Ann to fight his own darkness alone, Carfist extracts a vow from Lee Ann never to give up on him. Here’s Lummis’s description of Lee Ann’s coming-of-age moment:
And with that vow, Lee Ann felt herself letting go of all she knew she should do, not for Castfish, but for Lee Ann. And it was as if she were taking leave. And as she sat in the Firebird and listened to Catfish read “Old Glory” out loud, she saw the Lee Ann who knew better, the Lee Ann with the Lucky Strike rasp, open the car door and stride out onto the water. And as she watched herself go, this wiser Lee Ann kept on walking out onto that vast pool of night until she reached the center of Lake Pontchartrain, where she stopped and turned back as tiny waves lapped her calves. It was pitch dark in the Firebird and she was a long way from shore, but she could see Catfish plain as day, his eyelashes, the spray of freckles on the back of his hand. She could feel him too, his essence, his beating heart. Negating the distance, he was bigger than life, while the little girl to his right was scarcely a silhouette. From her marine outpost, Lee Ann waved but the little girl wasn’t looking, so she whistled, then called out. No response. The windows were closed and the words hit the windshield and flapped outward like Halloween crows. Her only chance of getting through to the girl, Lee Ann knew, was to return to dry land, but with the first step she comprehended her ability to walk on water was, like most things, imagined, and that all she could do to keep from sinking was to stay where she was, dead center on the lake. So this she did as Catfish started the car, and the headlights broadcast over the water, and the Firebird backed away from the curb and crawled along the shoreline, then winked red and disappeared.
This is not a cliff-hanger story-plot-twist of a novel. Rather, it’s one of strong character development among real-life afflictions and the struggle for regular folks to face life on its darkest days and push to get through to fight another day. And to love others enough to help them push on as well when they fail to find the strength on their own. CSCNO2 is at times lyrical, at times heart-breaking; and it is part historical fiction. But at all times, it is an attempt to explain who we are by where we—be it an individual, a family, a city, a society—have been. It is genuine and palpable. Written with a deftness so that the reader understands the love, and struggle thereto, Sammy and Lee Ann have for Catfish, and, more, to understand the demons that haunt Catfish. Even if the solution to exorcising those demons is not so obvious.
And best of all, it’s not the end of our journey. Part 3 is yet to come.