Monday, July 4, 2011
Charlie White's "Fatfingers"
I was born and raised in New Orleans, a city utterly unlike any other in the United States. Its culture has always been more Caribbean than American, with a rather high tolerance for political corruption, for example, that’s distressing but factual (remarkably, Illinois – the “Land of Lincoln” – seems to have captured that dubious crown worn so long by Louisiana and New Orleans).
Undergirding this tolerance in New Orleans is a kind of dark humor. Hurricane Katrina was barely over when the first t-shirts showed up in French Quarter souvenir shops, sharing choice comments about Mayor Nagin, FEMA and its hapless administrator, Michael Brown, President Bush and then-Governor Kathleen Blanco. That’s New Orleans – laughing in the face of calamity and making a little money on the process, while washing down a shrimp po-boy sandwich with a Dixie beer.
Welcome to Charlie White’s Fatfingers, A Tale of Old New Orleans. It’s a historical novel that’s shot through with that classic and contemporary sense of what New Orleans is.
It’s the 1760s, and the British are beginning to expel the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Pirates roam the Caribbean, the Spanish have taken over Louisiana from the French and the British can also be found in nearby Pensacola and Florida. Hapless carpenter Etienne Gaspard works in a Nova Scotia shipyard under a cruel and vicious taskmaster, Thomas Cudgel. Etienne and his brother-in-law Jacob are forced into hiding and eventually expelled. They travel with other expelled Acadians southward, stopping for a time in Charleston, South Carolina before alighting in Santo Domingo, or Saint Dominique.
Somehow, Etienne’s nemesis Cudgel ends up in the same place. Mishaps and upheavals ensue. Etienne and Jacob, accompanied by two women they meet, find their way to New Orleans, where they --- what else? – open a restaurant. Cudgel ends up in New Orleans as well, working as something like a sheriff or police chief for the Spanish authorities.
This story of Etienne and his friends is rollicking, and simultaneously dark and humorous. It’s populated by finely drawn, vivid characters who occasionally wonder how they’ve managed to get themselves into such a tale. Most of the characters are fictional, but some are historical, like the Spanish governor Ulloa and General O’Reilly.
The story moves geographically – Nova Scotia, Charleston, Saint Dominique, New Orleans, Barataria Bay, Pensacola and Havana, before returning to Louisiana – much like the times moved; the stories of empires and competing empires are stories largely of geography. And the details author White includes – both real and fictional – are marvelous, including lessons on sailing ships, indigo production and history, and rather tongue-in-cheek speculations on the origins of the Poor Boy (po-boy) sandwich and Southern Comfort bourbon.
Fatfingers is a highly entertaining story. I haven’t read one that so captures the New Orleans I know since John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
And I don’t know whether to laugh or shudder that the characters of the novel are like the people who are among my own forebears, and Fatfingers is a kind of family history.