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Louisiana through a loving lens


Photographs by Phil Gould
Text by Jason Berry
Louisiana State University Press, 152 pages, $39.95


Some years ago -- it may have been in New Orleans -- a charming young woman told me at a party that one of her family had murdered Huey Long. She just thought I’d like to know; and she was right.

One of the charms of New Orleans during my 10 happy years there was its intimacy -- I mean the proximity of legendary and newly famous scenes and people who, in another context, we could only read about. I could bike with a student friend along the Mississippi all the way to the battlefield at Chalmette, tracing Andrew Jackson’s steps, or do long runs through the ancient oaks of Audubon Park, or jog by the Garden District home where Jefferson Davis died or the house from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I could bump into Albert Finney on the steps of the Columns Hotel and invite Richard Ford or Jason Berry to talk with my writing classes at Loyola U.

My Louisiana was both narrowly focused, on my journalism classes, and occasionally broad -- Mass in the New Orleans city jail cell block; retreat at the Jesuit novitiate at Grand Coteau; a visit to the Louisiana University Lafayette, and the state prison at Angola in the steps of Sr. Helen Prejean.

But Louisiana was and is a two-faced society. The famed Louisiana-born CBS-ABC TV commentator Howard K. Smith was convinced that its “big easy” lifestyle condemned it to perpetual mediocrity. In national surveys, Louisiana consistently leads the nation in political corruption (which local people find amusing), illiteracy, infant malnutrition, child poverty and environmental pollution.

Photographer Phil Gould and writer Jason Berry know this, but they love the place nonetheless. They see the state in the midst of a cultural renaissance inspired by three forces: the civil rights movement; its religious heritage; and, above all, the chemical interaction of a variety of cultures -- black, French, Spanish -- that they call creolization, with its effulgence of poetry, fiction, folk music, jazz, cooking, sculpture and so on, making a bayou backwater an artistic hub.

Jason Berry is best known as a muckraker, author of the classic exposé of pedophile priests, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, but he is at heart a cultural historian, author of books on civil rights, American Indians and jazz. He would rather celebrate than condemn, and Gould’s camera has a loving lens. This beautiful volume introduces famous and less-known artists and writers who make Louisiana, if not Paris or New York, an exciting, creative place.

The volume has three elements: a narrative survey of the artists and their work; “Faces,” photos of prominent musicians, chefs, politicians and so on; and full page essays on renaissance stars -- like Nilo Lanzas, the Nicaraguan painter, who depicts O. J. Simpson, Saddam Hussein and Al Capone together in hell.

From time to time, the book’s logic limps. According to the prologue, they wanted “a gallery of images to suggest the settings and themes of cultural identity.” So historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley and novelist Richard Ford, because they are local national figures not writing about Louisiana, don’t fit. But retired congressmen, ex-governors, and the current mayor get full-page portraits, though their only contribution to the “arts” is that, as types, often corrupt, they give novelists raw material to exploit. And Robert Olen Butler, whose stories about the Vietnamese in New Orleans and Lake Charles in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain are among the best I’ve read in years, merits a picture, but not a paragraph.

But so what? The fun of doing your own book is you can put in it what you want. I might as well tell a New Orleans chef how to season his “dirty rice” or intrude my fiddle into a Cajun dance band. Better to enjoy the good things we have.

We see Fats Domino, 72, father of four sons and four daughters, in a yellow sport coat, in front of a sofa designed as a pink Cadillac tail-finned rear end, living simply and obscurely, attending Mass and shaking his head at the decadent antics of the Jerry Springer TV show.

I am reading Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 book A Lesson before Dying, about a young black Louisiana teacher in 1949 who has been asked to teach dignity to an ignorant black boy about to be executed for a murder he did not commit. In Faces, Gaines, 67, leads us through the cemetery of the False River plantation where he grew up. He cannot find the grave of the aunt, the model for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), who raised him while his 16-year-old mother worked in the fields.

The aunt was crippled and “crawled all over the floor like a child because that was the only way she could move. She pushed herself on the ground so she could pick pecans. She washed our clothes and cooked our food. … Never once did I hear her complain about her condition.”

Gaines is not offended that her grave is unmarked: “She’s there, still part of me, with the others.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001