Uproot a city of artists and you will hear their cries, and New Orleans was nothing if not a gathering place for creatives. The musicians have been heard on such gut-scraping releases as Our New Orleans (Nonesuch). Now the city’s writers have begun to release their laments, notably novelist and critic Tom Piazza arguing from the heart Why New Orleans Matters and NPR commentator and poet Andrei Codrescu bookending a collection of essays and radio pieces, New Orleans, Mon Amour, with reflections on the Katrina disaster.
Both books are powerful, rich with anger, longing, and barely expressible loss. But whereas Codrescu, who first came to the city in 1982, primarily communicates through the indirect languor of a poet (or a long-time New Orleanian), Piazza, who moved to there in 1994, scores a direct hit. His book is an argument, laid out to build a case. That he is preaching to the converted — who else will read this book? — matters little. Attention must be paid. And what a case Piazza makes: first wooing us with recollections of favorite gigs and eats (the “muffaletta at Central Grocery”), then moving onto the connection between music and food, and ultimately analyzing the primal importance of such pleasures: “the function of all ritual . . . to short-circuit time in its dumb, earthbound mortal sequence, and restate the things that will last and constantly renew the world.”
Piazza focuses on these immediate, tourist-accessible pleasures: he knows his audience. But in among the gumbos and jam sessions, he also introduces us to people, to the Mardi Gras Indian chief reading Bertrand Russell, to the gas-station attendant with “impressively long, decorated fingernails” who fixes his glasses late one night. Yes, Piazza acknowledges, New Orleans was a royal mess — he depicts poverty and corruption on a personal level — but it was also special. He, for one, hopes to go back, and to have a city to go back to, noting that for now, “the fate of the place, the sacred ground, that gave birth to all that beautiful and deep spirit hangs in the balance.”
Codrescu’s book, mainly a collection of pre-Katrina works, chronicles what was: the people, the parties, the mishmash of cultures, all the reasons a Romanian poet would settle in a subtropical city. “The world is a dream and you’re a half-sleeping alligator, stupidly treading water down in it,” he writes, his pieces so clearly in his radio voice that you can hear his throaty Romanian drawl. It’s a happy book for the most part, a lazy drinking companion. “Culture moves forward, and the cause of silliness is greatly advanced.” But it, too, is touched by melancholy. Several times, Codrescu compares his city to Venice, and he says his world is “made of water, a fact that makes me feel both transitory and humble.” “The knowledge that we won’t be here long gives everyone an intense appetite for living. Or just an appetite,” he writes, his tossed-off prophecy just another booze-fueled regret in one more brief, impressionistic essay.