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New Orleans, Mon Amour Twenty Years of Writings From the City Andrei Codrescu Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 276 pp., $14 paper

January 29, 2006|Jervey Tervalon | Jervey Tervalon, co-editor of "The Cocaine Chronicles," is finishing "The Pootbutt Survives: A Memoir of Growing Up in the Hood."

MANY artists fall into the gravitational pull of New Orleans, but for some it's not a perfect fit. The city is too dangerous and stifling hot, or they must temper their appetite for beignets, Sazeracs or vice in general. Andrei Codrescu, however, isn't deterred at all with excess or the underbelly of New Orleans' life and history. He exults in them and revels in telling us the details. With his Transylvanian fortitude, Codrescu has ensconced and entwined himself in my bedeviled hometown so deeply that not a sliver of moss-dappled sunlight escapes him. His new collection of essays, "New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings From the City," is like a good gumbo: messy but somehow comforting and exactly right.

Codrescu is in on everything fascinating about New Orleans, from its history to its music to its food. With the swaggering confidence of a French Quarter tour guide, he shows us again and again that he recognizes the city's significance and the mother lode of literary, musical, culinary material it represents. And, now after the flood, he posits that his adopted city reverberates even more, as a battered cultural capital of the United States, a funky Atlantis, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the South.

He covers a great deal of ground -- from the sacred to the profane, angels to alligators -- sometimes within the same paragraph. He begins the collection with "Some Prefatory Remarks: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" where he creates an almost Anne Rice-like moment concerning the Gnostic Gospels and a mysterious goth girl who channels and shares his fascination with the phrase "Our sister Sophia, she who is a whore." I wasn't sure if I was supposed to take this seriously or that it mattered if I did or not. I was in Codrescu's New Orleans, and what a fine and fantastic place it is.

Codrescu is a very entertaining essayist: elliptical, temperamental, generous and impatient. But he is also a literary historian. In this same essay, he mentions that "The Mysteries of New Orleans," a disturbing 19th century serial novel written by a young German baron escaping revolution back home, has been pieced together and translated into English. When originally published, Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein's novel "drew protests because he described (vividly and for the first time in American literature!) sex between women, sex between men, child prostitution and pedophilia. There was also a priest who killed young women in a Creole whorehouse that catered to specialized tastes."

Codrescu's mind flits from subject to subject, landing only long enough to satisfy his attention. Many of these essays come in under 500 words, and their very brevity is their charm. They have a genuine sense of playfulness and misdirection. He likes the idea of the laissez faire and the lackadaisical New Orleanian, but Codrescu is always rushing about trying to find more to discover about his beloved city:

"Living with large reptiles is an acquired taste, I'm sure, but I'm acquiring it in a hurry. Had alligator several times now. Yep, it does taste like chicken. How did you know? Actually it tastes like frog-fish. Had shark too, and other barely mentionables. I'll have 'em again too, if I ever get out of this hammock."

Codrescu gets at what draws writers to New Orleans. His enthusiasm is so earnest that a writer would need to be more than dead to not want to immediately visit his Big Easy.

"Near where I live, there is the Lafayette Cemetery on Prytania Street. Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat lives in one of the tombs. A few decades after Scott Fitzgerald [briefly lived in the city], a young poet, Everette Maddox, moved to New Orleans and rented Fitzgerald's apartment. It's still available, cheap, like everything else in New Orleans."

Although Codrescu's inclination is to romanticize New Orleans, he makes it clear that he's familiar with the darkness that is also at the heart of the city, as when he recounts the tale of some of the most brazen murders in New Orleans history. On March 4, 1995, off-duty New Orleans police Officer Antoinette Frank, along with an 18-year-old accomplice, Rogers Lacaze, robbed a restaurant where she moonlighted as a guard. The pair killed a fellow officer on guard duty as well as two of the children of the family that ran the place. "Frank and Lacaze robbed the register and left the massacre scene. What happened afterward belongs to a different order of things. Antoinette Frank returned to the Seventh District police station, picked up a police car, and came back to the crime scene in uniform, in response to the 911 emergency call. Perhaps she wanted to make sure that no evidence was left behind. More likely, an insane bravado was at work. She believed that she had gotten away with murder." (The two now sit on Louisiana's death row.)

"New Orleans, Mon Amour" ends with work written after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city last year. These pieces are naked with grief. Codrescu doesn't as much blame the disastrous response on President Bush as much as he places it in the context of choices being made for the country.

"The Bush Administration wrote off New Orleans because it's not part of America, it's merely part of the coming American empire. The President referred to us as 'that part of the world.' Not 'part of our country,' but part of a world that, like Iraq, has to be secured by armies, not saved through compassion. After doing nothing in the critical days after Katrina, the government response was to send us troops. With the city empty of its inhabitants, the armies of the United States marched around, guns at the ready, waiting around shops for insurgents who might dare to break in for baby food and toilet paper."

With "New Orleans, Mon Amour," Andrei Codrescu has honored a great, wounded American city.

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