Monday, June 3, 2019

“Perpetual Care: Stories” by James Nolan

For a native of New Orleans, reading the 16 short stories ofPerpetual Care by James Nolan is an immersion in both memory and reality. This is the city I remember, and this is the city I know, the one that is part of me for life. Even for the two stories set in San Francisco, strong New Orleans connections undergird the narrative.

Writers who know the city well, like John Kennedy Toole of The Confederacy of Dunces and Nolan, know how New Orleanians talk. What Southern accents exist in the city are imports. Natives, particularly those born and raised within the boundaries of Orleans Parish, have “the accent” – a curious mixture of French, Spanish, and African-American with added influences of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants. It sounds like Brooklyn and south St. Louis but still different from both. Nolan’s caught it exactly right in his stories.

The stories may be New Orleans-centric, but they reach beyond the city. In “The Immortalist,” a man attends the memorial service of a friend from the hippie culture youth. “Why Isn’t Everything Where It Used to Be?” concerns an older woman slipping into Alzheimer’s and takes the bus from the suburbs into the city because she knows she has to meet her mother and sisters for shopping. In “Knock Knock,” a boy slips away from potential sexual abuse. “La Vie en Rose Construction Co.” is about a courtyard repair that looks to go on indefinitely. The collection even includes a mystery story, “Open Mic,” in which a police detective investigates the disappearance of a young woman.

James Nolan
My favorite story is the title story, “Perpetual Care,” because it is so New Orleans. A woman tending to the family tomb in one of New Orleans’ “cities of the dead” is startled to hear singing come from the tomb across the walkway – and a cultural phenomenon is born, complete with food carts, the Jazz Festival, and tourist buses. It’s a laugh-out-loud story, and it’s perfectly believable in a city like New Orleans.

Nolan received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California (Berkeley and Santa Cruz). He’s taught writing and literature at universities in the United States, Spain, and China, and directed the Writing Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans for 12 years. His books include Drunk on Salt (2014), Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy
(2017), Higher Ground (2011), Jaime Gil de Biedma, Longing: Selected Poems (translation, 1993), Pablo Neruda, Stones of the Sky (translation, 2002), Perpetual Care:Stories (2008), What Moves is Not the Wind (1980),Why I Live in the Forest (1974), and You Don't Know Me: New and Selected Stories (2014). He lives in New Orleans.

The characters populating the stories of Perpetual Care are classic New Orleans people – police officers, plumbers, strippers, bartenders, men whose families pay them to stay away, a would-be writer determined to get published at any cost, the French Quarter residents ready to commit homicide if one more vampire-tour group comes by, the elderly clinging to the houses they live in because they’re anchored in the sense of place, the people who respond to chain letters. New Orleans people, yes, but people recognizable anywhere.

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