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Book Review : A Retreat Into the New Journalism

September 30, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Ritz of the Bayou by Nancy Lemann (Alfred A. Knopf. $15.95. 163 pages).

I once knew a European journalist who traveled from story to story in a large touring car with her husband, two Afghan hounds and a great many outfits. Once, when I stopped by her hotel room to return some notes, I was greeted by four of her. Eight eyes peered out, six of them belonging to a set of plastic dummies wearing her wigs.

In her own venture into reportage, the novelist Nancy Lemann also travels with an entourage; not of clothes but of moods, doubts, tics and personal problems. She keeps a roomful of eyes whose employment seems to be partly to see, partly to be seen.

The first rule of journalism is: Get out of bed in the morning. Lemann, in her highly mannered account of the trial of Louisiana's Gov. Edwin Edwards for corruption, brings her bed with her. She ventures out, is overwhelmed by the heat, the light, the color, the strangeness; and retreats back into bed. She pulls the sheets over her head and, surrounded by sensibility, refashions what she has seen.

Visible Audience

"The Ritz of the Bayou" marks, perhaps, a second generation of what was called the new journalism. In the '60s, its practitioners used fictional techniques to present more vividly the stories they had gathered. Not only in what had happened or what was said, but how it felt or sounded. The writer presented himself or herself as a visible audience instead of an invisible one. The notion was that a speech is not only what the speaker is saying but what happens to those who hear it.

The fictional techniques borrowed by the new journalists were those used up through the '60s. Lemann's are those of a Donald Barthelme or a Robert Coover. The primary reality fades out almost entirely. An unstable viewer takes over, blending consequence and inconsequence, conscious and subconscious and--most of all--a highly provisional willingness and a frequent refusal to be there at all.

The point of Lemann's book is the peculiar style in which she treats her theme and what this style signifies. The theme itself is a familiar one.

She tells of Gov. Edwards' ability to prevail over his accusers in the course of two trials as an example of Louisiana's love for the exuberant scamp over the legalistic puritan. She presents Edwards and his seven co-defendants, along with their lawyers, in all their flamboyance; the trial is "an issue between the hedonist and the anhedonists."

Her countertheme is the darkness beneath the charm. "Something desperate in the South and partly brought on by the tropic climate does compel the Southerner to odd modes of behavior," she writes early on. Then, toward the end, she rephrases it after suggesting that Edwards' buoyancy may be a form of derangement and after interviewing a small-town mayor ousted for losing his mind altogether.

Lemann, who is a Louisianan herself, approves of a society that clings to its particularity and even its eccentricities. But she adds:

"A humble garden humbly tended becomes very great; a nutty garden tended with delusions becomes very nutty."

Compare the two quotations. Lemann's own mode of expression is becoming steadily odder. She is a writer of skill, sensitivity and sophistication. Yet her quirks and mannerisms come thicker and faster.

"This was a man who had a dark side and a lot of human condition," she writes of the late Donald Manes, the Queens politician who killed himself after being involved in a scandal. Here is a view of Jim Neal, the governor's chief defense counsel: " 'Well, well, well,' drawls Neal screamingly." And she writes, in a reference to another defense lawyer: "I was mistaken for Pappy Triche's daughter in the elevator, to whom I bear a strong resemblance according to a drawling defendant."

What on earth is Lemann doing to the language? Why does she so persistently and jarringly use repetitions? Jolly, jovial, joshing appear over and over again. She uses Brazilian contortionist three times in a paragraph. She makes four references to "smoldering" nightclubs. Seven times she mentions in passing an assistant district attorney who has nothing to do with the trial; each time, she calls him "the jazz-crazed assistant prosecutor."

In fact, Lemann is engaged in destruction. What some contemporary novelists have done, not only to narration but to the concept of a narrator, a sensibility, a point of view, a tone--fractionalized them--she is doing to journalism.

In a way, she has reworked A. J. Liebling's celebrated book on the late Gov. Earl Long of Louisiana. The picture of a wondrously finagling way of life is roughly, and consciously, similar. But she undermines it.

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