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COVER STORY : Road Trip! : Andrei Codrescu is your basic droll Transylvanian poet and social commentator who was given a '68 Caddy and a mission: Find America and its soul

August 08, 1993|JOE LEYDON | Joe Leydon is the film critic for the Houston Post

NEW ORLEANS — "Near where I live," Andrei Codrescu writes in an essay for the anthology "New Orleans Stories," "there is the Lafayette Cemetery on Prytania Street. Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat lives in one of the tombs."

It is an irony that Codrescu views with something less than unadulterated glee. As a native of Transylvania, he is inordinately proud of his fictional countryman Count Dracula, the only king of the undead he will ever acknowledge. Lestat? Codrescu considers Rice's best-selling, soon-to-be-Tom-Cruised creation to be a mere pretender to the throne.

"It used to be that when Americans thought of vampires, they thought of this cultured Eastern European aristocrat," Codrescu recently complained while entertaining a visitor in his Garden District home.

"But now, they think of this . . . this . . . "

The visitor was startled. Not by the angry outburst, which seemed more comically affected than genuinely wrathful, but by a far more unusual spectacle. Here was Andrei Codrescu--poet, novelist, university professor, National Public Radio commentator, part-time TV pundit and documentary-movie star--suddenly at a loss for words.

For the thousands who have consumed his 25 volumes of poetry, fiction and essays, and for the millions who listen faithfully to his droll commentaries on NPR's "All Things Considered," Codrescu is a wordsmith par excellence, a raconteur nonpareil. Hearing this transmedia Transylvanian struggle helplessly for an appropriately harsh put-down is a bit like seeing Dracula scurrying away from daylight: oddly disheartening.

Not to worry, though: Codrescu quickly came up with an aptly sarcastic (and, unfortunately, quite unprintable) description of Lestat. With that out of the way, he was eager to talk about other notable aspects of his neighborhood.

Next door to the Lafayette Cemetery, Codrescu said, is the apartment house where a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, "This Side of Paradise." But there's no marker to indicate the historical importance of this site. And that, Codrescu said, is probably as it should be.

"If New Orleans went into the memorial plaque business for all the writers who ever lived here," Codrescu said, "they would have to brass-plate the whole town."

Actually, New Orleans is very much Codrescu's kind of town. He and his wife live a short stroll from their favorite Magazine Street restaurant-cum-art gallery and only a few minutes from the Greyhound Bus terminal, from which Codrescu commutes to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he teaches literature and writing.

(That he is a tenured professor in the university's English department is an endless source of amusement for Codrescu: 'In America, we get our shoes from Italy, we get our cars from Japan--and our English teachers from Romania.")

"This is a town that really appreciates talent," he said. "I just wrote a piece about this amazing obituary that appeared in the newspaper a few days ago. It was an obituary for a chef at the Louis XVI Restaurant. And the newspaper praised this chef's dishes--like the veal chop with sauces of sherry, ginger and pepper. And it went on to talk about his sweetbread stuffed with mushrooms. It talked about his famous poached salmon Lafayette, which it gave the complete recipe for.

"And I thought, 'Man, what other town would actually list all of your creations, so they could cook from your obituary?' So what I wrote was: 'In New Orleans, the dead don't get to eat, but they still can cook.' "

It was just that kind of pith and playfulness that appealed to documentary filmmaker Roger Weisberg, who telephoned Codrescu three years ago with what he thought was an irresistible offer.

Here's the deal: With a frayed shoestring budget from public television, Weisberg would follow the transplanted Romanian on a drive down highways and byways in Florida, "documenting the Americana and the roadside attractions" as Codrescu waxed eloquent and, even better, ironic.

So how about it?

Codrescu, a mischievous-looking fellow with the smile of a warily skeptical cherub, still shakes his head in bemusement at the memory of Weisberg's first phone call.

"I told him we have two problems," Codrescu said. "I don't want to go to Florida. And I don't drive."

And that, Codrescu thought, was the end of it. Several months later, however, Weisberg called again, with an amended proposal. The producer would finance a cross-country auto journey, allowing Codrescu to set the itinerary. Before the trip began, he would pay for Codrescu's driving lessons--provided, Weisberg stipulated, "you will allow us to film the ordeal."

And, perhaps most important, Weisberg "offered me a ridiculously small amount of money," Codrescu said, "that was, however, more than my poetry had earned me in a lifetime of practicing its dangerous pin turns."

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