Book Review - New Orleans jumps off the page in Josh Russell's My Bright Midnight
Author's second crack at the Crescent City resounds with NOLA's smells, sights, and vibe
Novelist Josh Russell just can't write about a place while he's living in it. He says he needs the distance to recall and arrange, as he calls them, the "vivid and weird" details that make a place vital. In part, this distance method explains why a guy from Normal, Ill., who only briefly lived in New Orleans, could write a novel like My Bright Midnight — a book so rich with the smells, sights, and vibe of New Orleans that the city seems to rise right off the page.
It doesn't explain, though, how he was able to write it 10 years after penning Yellow Jack, his first novel about New Orleans. Yellow Jack evoked the Crescent City in entirely different terms, during a different time, and from a different perspective. The only way to explain that feat is talent.
Russell's parents, "hippie Marxist liberals" according to the author, moved nearly every year of his adolescence to live almost exclusively in "sabbatical houses," the temporarily unoccupied domiciles of university professors on leave. After living in Normal, Washington, D.C., and a laundry list of other locales with his parents, Russell has nearly kept up that pace in his adult life, moving around every couple of years (grad school, university gigs) until finally settling just outside of Atlanta in Newnan in 2004. Since then, he's worked as an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Georgia State University.
Even with all those cities in mind, his time living in New Orleans in the early '90s comes back to him like memories of a first girlfriend — riding the street car, lounging around in Café Brasil on Frenchmen Street, packing up Walker Evans prints for an art gallery. He wasn't living the high life, though.
"I was dead broke all the time," he says. "I was the consummate deadbeat. I was doing laundry at my neighbors' all the time; they were always feeding me. That first summer I lived in New Orleans, I remember spending a lot of time just walking around because it was cheap."
The narrator of My Bright Midnight, Walter Schmidt, begins life in Munich, Germany, with a grudge. American soldiers in 1914, he's told, lured his father and uncle "into no-man's-land to trade wine for tobacco" but killed them instead. Young Walt grows into an endearing mess. He teaches himself English in an admittedly absurd scheme to find his father's killer, and nearly chokes his cousin to death for calling Walt's widowed mother a whore. He's a fuck-up, but a pleasant one who tells his story in humble but precise sentences.
So when he makes a monumental mistake — telling a lie that goes terribly wrong — we hope the best for Walt when he skips out of Munich and catches a boat headed for America.
"In 1928 I hated America. Then I arrived in New Orleans in springtime," Walt begins the story of his emigration. To say that he simply falls in love with New Orleans (which, in fact, he does) is a gross understatement. Walt is transformed by the city, transfixed by "bushes of burning pink flowers" and "live oaks that glowed like neon signs in the shape of trees."
His diet goes on for pages like culinary poetry "jambalaya, gumbo, muffalettas ... gallons of inky coffee laced with chicory ... spearmint snowballs with condensed milk, Russian Cake, apple fried pies." He takes to listening into staticky transmissions of baseball down at the corner bar (Prohibition hasn't changed much in New Orleans), watching newsreels and Hollywood movies in a darkened theater, and working late nights alone in a bakery, frying doughnuts into the early dawn.
Yellow Jack was a dark, violent, occasionally disturbing novel that explored the 19th-century French Quarter in a complex collage of art-history documents, the perspective of a slowly maddening photographer, and the diary entries of his lover. Those passages and perspectives switched rapidly, like the shuffle of a stack of old photographs. Aside from Russell's knack for historical obscurities and comic turns, My Bright Midnight couldn't be more different of a novel.
The influence of photography is traded for films in My Bright Midnight. "I watched a lot of those same movies as Walter in an attempt to feel in some small way what it was like to sit in a theater in New Orleans in 1945," Russell says. Walt's narration is fluid and film-like, never once wavering from his calm, nonchalantly poetic tone in telling his immigrant tale and recounting his romance and marriage to Nadine. Eventually, though, you realize Walt has made so many small, bad decisions that he's surrounded by an underworld of thieves and bookies that loom like disaster on his horizon.
Russell's prose has a way of quietly sneaking in page-turning tension without sacrificing deeper insights. Walter's marriage to Nadine is just as complex as the underworld in which Walter gets mixed up. Her previous husband, a soldier lost to the war, haunts him. "I wanted to see in a wink or a smile or a nod proof Nadine had chosen me and was happy with her choice, that she would've chosen me over Bobby if she'd had the chance. I had to settle for not seeing any evidence to the contrary."
As Walter struggles to keep his life under control, My Bright Midnight gracefully balances a hybrid of the immigrant domestic novel and an urgent noir plot that Walter could've watched in the darkened theaters during his time.
My Bright Midnight by Josh Russell. LSU Press. $18.95. 144 pp.
Editor's note: This copy has been updated from its original version.