Friday, March 19, 2010

Southern Stereotypes - This is a long one, boobies!

(As Shown Through Ellen Gilchrist’s “The Stucco House” and Robert Stone’s “The Hall of Mirrors”

As a native of the American South, I am oftentimes chagrined, saddened, and even embarrassed at how Southern culture is depicted in literature, movies and other media, even in works that are accorded the mantle of superiority or even greatness. It saddens me when an inaccurate portrait is painted by an author from another culture and when the creator is himself of the South my feeling is then one of betrayal and even anger. Occasionally, someone “gets it right” and even then, after an initial feeling of gratitude, two thoughts emerge; one that not enough people read or viewed it, and; two, that they didn’t believe the picture presented because of the preponderance of material presented in a negative or dishonest manner.

Stereotypes abound throughout ours and I suspect, most cultures, but it seems the culture peculiar to the South is fair game to anyone and everyone, to continue the myth, mostly negative, whereas these same authors would recoil in horror at the perpetuation of myth as pertains to say, race. (Although, it is evident that many of the Southern stereotypes are perpetuated in an attempt to counteract racial myth--a lie battling a lie, as it were)

To illustrate the contrast between an accurate portrayal of Southern culture and one that conforms to popular myth, I would like to take a look at two works, Ellen Gilchrist’s short story, “The Stucco House”, and Robert Stone’s novel “A Hall of Mirrors.”

Gilchrist, in my opinion, is far more the accurate of the two, in depicting the Southern culture experienced by those born and bred as Southerners (I’m not including Southerners who have been subjected (perhaps elsewhere) to a “liberal” education and seem embarrassed by their heritage, but am speaking of the “rank and file” Southerner, both poor and wealthy, black and white, male and female).

Gilchrist uses both physical description of setting and telling incidents to create a highly accurate picture of the culture as it has evolved over a historical period dating from the 1600’s.

One of the things one learns from living in various places in the South, is that you cannot place the entire South in one descriptive basket. There are oranges in that basket, as well as apples, bananas, pomegranates, plums, mangos, and even a breadfruit or two. True, there are some characteristics of the culture that remain constant no matter where one lives in that section of the country, but there are many mutations of the same basic culture, from state to state, sub-region to sub-region, city to country. For instance, in the state of Texas, which is actually a border area of the south, folks who live in the eastern section and central portion of the state consider themselves Southerners, while those who live in the Panhandle or northwest Texas may consider themselves Mid-Westerners or Westerners. To get even more specific, consider the almost-twin cities of Fort Worth and Dallas. Dallas folks consider themselves the elitist of all genteel Southerners, while Fort Worth natives would be horrified to be described as anything but true Westerners and cowboys. Citizens of Birmingham, Alabama are primarily Baptist in religious background, while those from New Orleans are primarily Catholic.

In “The Stucco House”, the physical geography, including landscape as it is described, is not merely an exercise in physical description; it means something in relation to the characters, providing clues that, in both subtle and more overt ways, contribute to the image the reader visualizes of the characters in his mind’s eye.

Many of the elements of physical description Gilchrist provides in this story are peculiar to New Orleans and the South and its attendant history and culture and will not be so readily evident to the reader not immersed in this particular society, while other such descriptive elements are more universal and will therefore be more apparent to the reader with a different experience. Some of the elements she uses in defining characters in her use of place are not evident upon an initial cursory reading, but are after completion of the reading and reflection. They serve, in the end, as a resonance to the characters, especially the principal one, Teddy, that lends a richness not available in mere physical description of his surroundings in a purely poetical or lyrical choice of words.

The reader from another culture for example, may not “get” all of the properties of Gilchrist’s physical and geographical description as will someone born and raised in the New Orleans culture, but they will come away with a sense, even if inarticulated, of what Teddy and his family are, in that milieu.

In the very first sentence of the story, for instance, Gilchrist signals that she is going to use physical description to place her characters in that culture. The sentence reads, “Teddy was asleep in his second-floor bedroom.” This would probably be nothing more than a “window pane description” in most other settings; in New Orleans this sentence signals two things.

One, the name she has chosen for her main character provides a clue as to his place within that culture. This is one of the examples referred to earlier that is not evident upon initial reading, but becomes clear upon finishing the story. “Teddy”, the diminutive of Theodore, is a name popular among upper middle-class white families, who chose their names carefully. A Northern writer, subject to the myths he learned to accept as Southern culture, might have named the character “Delbert” or “Billy Bob” or some other such foolish handle, more common in such border areas as southern Indiana than in the South, and, if a Southern person’s name, it would be found in someone of a lower economic and social strata. By using the name Teddy, Gilchrist immediately provides a clue as to who this young boy is in class terms. She makes the decision to use the diminutive instead of the more proper “Theodore”, which might have been done if this story had been written by another writer and set in, say, Connecticut, and is another slight clue to his identity and even age. J.D. Salinger could name a character Teddy and it would be unclear as to his age without further reading--although he would probably also be of the upper middle-class bracket, but could have been a young boy or a young, wealthy roué. Names, as Gilchrist seems absolutely aware, are of great importance in dispelling myth. The South tends to get lumped into one huge androgynous mass, ignoring a huge region of the country that is vastly complex and varied. There is, for example, a difference between a factory worker living in a trailer park in Harlan, Kentucky and the wife of a newspaper owner in Athens, Georgia.

Louisiana itself, is, in some ways, an aberration of what outsiders commonly think of as the South. In New Orleans, the religious background is primarily Roman Catholic (although there is a rich mix of other religions as well, including A.M.E., voodoo, Baptist, Pentecostal, Jewish and many, many others, even though it is certainly true that the defining religion is Catholic because of the Spanish and French historical influence), while in other parts of the state, particularly the northern and northwestern sections, most of the residents, black and white, favor the Southern Baptist flavor of worship. (And, too, you can find a church or two that favors rattlesnake handling and the drinking of poisonous substances as proof of their faith.) To inject a personal history, being a Southerner myself, born and raised along the Gulf coast of Texas and reared Baptist as were virtually all my acquaintances, when critics term Flannery O’Connor a “Southern writer”, I am always taken slightly aback in my mind, for wasn’t she Catholic? Indeed, and my own prejudice as to what constitutes a Southerner stems from the fact that I only ever met a real live Catholic one time while growing up, and that person was viewed with as much curiosity in my hometown of Freeport, Texas as would have been a Martian with three heads arriving in our midst. My family also lived for a period in Algiers, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans, and that was my first sustained exposure to those who practiced the Catholic faith, and our reaction was to view them as totally alien beings, almost as heathens. That this is unfair and patently untrue is beside the point--the point is that the South cannot be defined by such simple terms as predominant religions or accents or even a common “take” on things.

However, New Orleans, where both Gilchrist and Stone set their stories, is a fairly isolated and definable community, unique in the South, and as so, is fairly easy to assign attributes to a fiction character that carry weight as to who that person is and where he fits into the mosaic of the culture--which piece of the tile provides his borders. Other Southern cities, such as Atlanta and Houston would be far less easy to study simply because of the mass infusion of Northerners into those communities which have homogenized the culture into something hybrid. Indeed, it is those very cities that inspired the epithet “The New South,” illustrating a new kind of culture not found in that form anywhere else. Perhaps the same sort of thing occurred in Detroit in the 1940’s after World War II, when a huge influx of Southerners, mostly black and poorer whites, immigrated to that city for employment in the auto factories, although I have yet to hear anyone apply the appellation “The New North” to that city, even though the experience was similar to the later exodus.

“Teddy” therefore, suggests immediately a young boy of some wealth and proper family, i.e., long and distinguished lineage.

In the last part of her opening sentence, we see that Teddy is asleep in his second-floor bedroom. This again, denotes he is a member of the ruling class. Poorer residences in New Orleans, unless they have been subdivided into apartments, are traditionally single story structures, usually of “shotgun” or “camel-back” architecture. That he also has his own bedroom is a luxury usually only those well-to-do can afford.

As the first paragraph of the story develops, even though the author has not yet used a single word to physically describe Teddy, we have a complete picture of who he is by the description of his physical surroundings, especially if we understand the Southern culture. His bedroom has a private bath. For a child to have his own bathroom is assuredly an indicator of wealth. Then, there are mobiles from the Museum of Modern Art hanging from a ceiling fan above his bed. In the window is another mobile a visiting poet had given him. He has been tutored. All these are obvious signs of a privileged upbringing, even to someone unfamiliar with New Orleans culture.

Gilchrist then uses two elements of place that may mean little to a reader unfamiliar with the New Orleans culture, but which carry a great significance to the initiated. The first is that Teddy’s mother came originally from Mandeville across Lake Ponchartrain. The city of Mandeville has a two-headed reputation, in that wealthy racehorse breeders abound there, as well as other families of wealth--lumber owners and other captains of industry, along with rich landowners, is the home of the state mental institution. Mandeville thus serves as a metaphor for the personality of the mother, and indeed, we later find out that she is a woman of breeding but imbued with baser instincts. This is actually an accurate picture of what the Old South views of as the New Southern Woman, at least in the more rarefied classes, and, interestingly, this view derives from the influence the movie “Gone With The Wind” created both in Southerners and Yankees alike. The character of Scarlett O’Hara is perhaps the culprit in many of the more untrue stereotypes of Southerners, especially of women. Rarely, if ever, did such a woman exist, except in Margaret Mitchell’s imagination, and in fairness, the movie version wasn’t quite true to the character portrait Mitchell painted, but...That’s Hollyweird!

Finally (in the first paragraph) we learn that Teddy is a student at the Newman School. The public schools in New Orleans are virtually 100 percent black; nearly all white citizens, regardless of economic status, send their children to private schools. In the parish of New Orleans itself, one would be hard-pressed to find a Caucasian child in most public schoolrooms. Whites comprise less than five percent of the public school population in that parish, more in the outlying parishes of Metairie and Kenner, but still not significant. But, there are private schools and then there are private schools. A great many exist solely to allow de facto segregation and even the poorest of families go to great lengths to provide private schooling for their children for that sole reason. However, there are certain schools, chief of which are Newman and Ecole, which are highly selective (read, no blacks allowed whatsoever, regardless of the economic strata) and which require exorbitant sums to attend. Newman stands alone at the very top of this elite list, with Ecole second. The requirements at Newman are race, wealth and family; at Ecole, only race and wealth are the determinants--they will enroll the noveau riche while Newman will not. If a New Orleanian hears that a family’s son is admitted to Newman the correct assumption would be that child to be wealthy, white and old money. These two schools, in particular, make no attempt at all to even allow a token child of color to be admitted to their hallowed corridors, indeed, just the opposite. Every effort is taken to prevent that from happening.

Further evidence of Teddy’s class is given when we learn he attends services at Episcopal, a denomination not known for its large poverty-stricken congregations.

In the second paragraph, we receive yet another clue to Teddy’s class. His stepfather Eric had let “the springer spaniels” into the house. If the characters peopling this story were of a different class, the dogs might perhaps have been nondescript mutts or hounds, but springer spaniels are an aristocratic breed of canine and their being in the house wouldn’t be worthy of note, especially since they don’t contribute to the story except to help define this family’s socio-economic status.

The title itself lends import to who these people are. Stucco is not a material used in poorer construction. Baser structures are made of cheaper pine from the northeastern part of the state. Stucco is another indicator of wealth.

Gilchrist really pounds us over the head with details that stake out
Teddy’s elevated place in society. His older brothers are off for the summer at Camp Carolina, for instances. Lower classes don’t send their sons and daughters to ritzy summer camps, as a rule.

A large part of the New Orleans culture is the free use of alcohol, perhaps more so here than in any other part of the country as a whole. The author introduces this element into the mosaic when she describes the July heat as being so oppressive that,

“It pressed people’s brains against their skulls. Only
sugar and whiskey made people feel better.”

Gilchrist is right; sugar is everywhere, as is booze, and it is what allows people to get up and operate in the heat. More important, this passage subtly refers to the peculiar kind of New Orleans madness others have noted and written about, such as in Tennessee Williams’ plays “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

Now the trouble begins in the story. Eric wakes Teddy to go search for Teddy’s mother who has been gone all night. Eric drives down Nashville Street to Chestnut (shabby part of town) and then they come to a duplex where Eric knows her to be. This is a two-story building, but a duplex, signifying that it is a poorer residence, having been divided into two dwellings. Also, the names of the streets in this section are important, as streets in the Big Easy are how poorer neighborhoods are defined boundary-wise, avenues being where the wealthier reside.

The naming of the streets is also important, as New Orleans is a checkerboard” town. Roughly every two blocks, the neighborhood changes. There will be two blocks of mostly poor blacks and whites, then two blocks of wealthier whites, sometimes, as on St. Charles Avenue and parts of the Uptown area, literal millionaires in a two block stretch and then two blocks of slum-like housing directly adjacent. The reason for this is that integration was forced on New Orleans in the 1960’s, and whereas northern cities had decades upon decades, even centuries, to “naturally” form their racially-defined neighborhoods, many southern cities like New Orleans didn’t have that luxury of time and with the passage of new housing laws, the town almost overnight developed in a checkerboard fashion, racially. There are several other dynamics at work here as well; for instance, New Orleans has a curious history of coexisting with black people, with their tradition of wealthy young white men once yearly selecting black mistresses whom they then set up in homes and treated as an unequal family, going so far as to educate their mutual offspring in colleges and universities and setting those children up in businesses. That meant a unique acceptance among the white population, especially the wealthy, of black people that was peculiar to the local culture. Even back to the slave-holding days, blacks were given quarters adjacent to the main house, where, many times, mistresses for the man of the manor were openly housed. These are still known as “slave quarters” and when integration came, many were sold off or rented as residences to blacks. That is a way for the locals even today to tell if the person they are talking to is a native or carpetbagger. When speaking of the old area in the Vieux Carre, natives refer to it as the “French Quarters, while an interloper will almost always call the area the “French Quarter”. Along St. Charles Avenue, for instance, there are mile after mile of incredible mansions, while a block behind them, on either side, exists some of the most execrable squalor imaginable. Unspoken laws exist today that prevent each race from trespassing on the other, even with their close proximity to one another. One ancient exception was the establishment of the “neutral ground”, the center medians in the middle of designated streets where blacks were allowed to set up stands for purposes of commerce in the midst of white neighborhoods and where blacks and whites could safely commingle.

A little later on in the story, we learn the housekeeper Geneva (black name) will be along shortly and Eric tells Teddy to have her fix him some pancakes, which fixes their racial relationship, as even the children of white families have almost complete authority over black servants and employees. Gilchrist doesn’t have Eric “ask” Teddy for breakfast; he has the boy “tell” her.

Further on, Eric sends Teddy to his grandparents’ house in Mandeville with Big George the gardener. Once again, place and setting help delineate the Southern relationships of the races. Big George takes Teddy to the Camellia Grill, a famous landmark just off St. Charles Avenue where the streetcar makes its turn onto Carollton Avenue. (I used to live a block away on Burthe) This is Tulane University area, where the nouveau riche attend (the truly rich go to LSU if they are patriotic, or out of state to Duke or Maryland or various Ivy League schools); Tulane has the reputation of being where captains of industry send their sons and daughters after they’ve partied their way out of several other schools, and while it is respectable, it has a slightly soiled patina for those of truly old money. Thus, it is “safe” to venture out in this neighborhood, even if it is a cut below better neighborhoods found uptown.

Racially, the Camellia Grill qualifies as a place where young white boys of breeding may go with a trusted black employee. The clientele is a mix of tourists and locals, where locals are ordinarily seated on the left of the two counters and tourists and lower-level citizens on the right. In busy times it becomes more democratic, but occasionally an older dowager with a heightened sense of propriety will become incensed at finding herself being seated in the bustle at the wrong counter and adjustments will be made by the one-armed owner who seats himself by the cash register. Tourists are somewhat bewildered at times when they observe people turning down a spot at the right counter to await an opening on the left. The Camellia Grill represents a neutral zone, just as the neutral ground along some of the streets does.

Before they go to the Camellia Grill, Teddy asks Eric if he can buy Big George lunch. He doesn’t ask George, but Eric, as this is the proper way to do this in this society. If Teddy and George were of equal class and/or race, George would, as the adult, purchase the lunch, but in this instance, that would be unthinkable. Again, Gilchrist doesn’t select the place they will eat in willy-nilly, but to again further define the characters against the backdrop of Southern custom.

When Big George drives Teddy over the Ponchartrain bridge, he keeps the speedometer pegged at a steady sixty miles per hour. Seemingly innocent, the speed the author allows the black handyman to drive, but as in most other things peculiarly New Orleanian, this is another clue to his status. Ponchartrain bridge has its own police force, separate from New Orleans and Metairie on the one end and Covington on the other, a “Sheriff of Nottingham” fiefdom. While the legal speed is fifty-five except near the middle where the bridge rises to allow boats to pass on their way to the Gulf, white drivers routinely motor at speeds up to eighty with impunity while blacks are given a cushion of only about five miles per hour. The chief of this police force was a client in the salon I worked in and would often joke about this disparity and regular commuters across the bridge were fully aware of their limits. The only exception to this unwritten law were white drivers of cars that appeared suspicious, perhaps fitting the profile of a drug dealer or user or vehicles weaving erratically. Otherwise, race dictated how fast you could drive beyond the posted limit. This seems picayune (unless, of course, it affects you), but such things are important to many white people.

It is certainly possible that the speed Gilchrist had Big George driving was entirely innocent, but considering the care with which she has inserted other elements into the story that carry racial and social weight, it is also entirely possible this is still another meaningful bit of information designed to place the characters within the context of their culture.

Outsiders to the culture may laugh at such mores or think them nonexistent if they were not raised in the society and forced since birth to suffer or enjoy the consequences, but they exist and are part and parcel of every citizen’s life, unlikely to be ignored. Thirty-odd years of civil rights legislation has done much to change the outward appurtenances of the Old South, but underneath still rumble many of the old feelings and values, and survival, especially of blacks, depends heavily on knowledge of how the “system” works.

A telling incident that happened to me and my wife Mary (who is from Indiana), occurred when she was newly arrived in New Orleans, shortly after we were married. One day, while passing an attractive girl, I made the offhand remark that she was “passing for white.” In the North, such a thought wouldn’t have even crossed my mind--I doubt I would have paid the girl the slightest attention insofar as race was concerned. But, back in the South, it became again almost a knee-jerk reflex to pick up on such a thing.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked, not understanding what I was saying. I explained and she retorted, “You’re crazy! Why, that girl is whiter than I am!” She refused to believe me, not that it mattered in the least whether the girl was white or black or green. That wasn’t the point. The point was, in that society, someone with even a solitary drop of so-called “black blood” who would try to deny that blood was still considered in a negative way. A day later, this same girl happened to enter the salon my wife worked at, and a black stylist with whom she worked, whispered behind her hand to Mary that “That hussy is trying to pass.” Only then did my wife believe what I had said and still she herself couldn’t see any difference in the features of the girl from any other white girl. It’s just that both I, the white, and her co-worker, the black, had both been raised in a culture where even the tiniest clues are considered important to determine race and social class and these principles are still being adhered to even at this rather late date in our history.

There was an ongoing cause celibre featured in the media about the same time, where a woman had put on an application for a state government job that she was of the white race. Someone had investigated and discovered that she was one sixteenth black. The state had denied employment, claiming she had falsified her application and the case went to the state supreme court, which held for the state, saying the woman was legally black. It didn’t matter that she was overwhelmingly of Caucasian heritage and race, in the tradition of the culture even the slightest trace of black ancestry renders one black. The finding held on appeal.

The same kind of attitude pertains to social class, which in the South is more dependent on family and breeding than wealth. As a point of fact, wealth is more or less at the bottom of the deciding factors when determining whether to interact socially with others. A good example is the term “jeezum” which was popular among many teenaged girls in New Orleans a few years ago. If a visitor were to eavesdrop on dozens of teens while walking around the city, he would think the term to be a local saying most of the kids were using, something like “cool, man” or the like. In fact, however, it was only uttered by those raised in the Ninth Ward and Irish Channel, never by an Uptown girl. Use of this term would place the person class-wise instantly by a local observer. There are literally thousands of such clues that are absorbed almost subconsciously by the native and serve to place others according to their class, race, or station in society. Gilchrist seems especially attuned to many of these nuances, and while someone not privy by virtue of a lifelong training in picking them up would scarcely notice them or even be aware of them, a story like “The Stucco House” is teeming with them.

Robert Stone, in his award-winning novel “A Hall of Mirrors” seems to have gone in another direction. The feeling this reader came away with after reading the story, also set in New Orleans, was that of a person (the author) who approaches his material from two perspectives. One, as a Southerner, but not one from New Orleans, and two, as a writer who experiences guilt over his heritage, in particular in respect to race relations.

In “A Hall of Mirrors”, Stone showed me a side of New Orleans I’m fairly unfamiliar with--East New Orleans. When you live in New Orleans you are aware of two distinct and separate parts of the metropolis, New Orleans itself and the outlying communities or suburbs, including Metairie, Kenner, Vieux Carre, the CBD, Uptown, Downtown, Irish Channel, Ninth Ward, Bucktown, Lakefront and several other smaller areas. East New Orleans is an area unto itself, viewed as such by residents of both general areas. While it was fascinating to see a part of a world which on the one hand I’m very familiar and on the other completely ignorant, I sensed a false note in the novel, in that Stone has residents from East New Orleans routinely interacting with folks from the French Quarters and other parts of what is generally considered “true” New Orleans, while my own experience is that people from East New Orleans very rarely even visit New Orleans itself--perhaps for special occasions such as Mardi Gras or the Jazz and Heritage Festival, but certainly not on a day-to-day basis. That there are individuals that do so is undoubtedly true, but Stone presents intermingling of residents of the two areas as normal, which it is not.

Folks from Kenner or Metairie (Metry) and other adjacent communities travel back and forth to New Orleans, especially to the CBD and Quarters and obvious standard tourist areas, as regular as constipation in octogenarians, but folks from East New Orleans? My impression is that Stone is probably a native Southerner but not a New Orleans native, and that he gathered background material for this novel from visits, not from growing up in either area. Perhaps he is even from Louisiana, but not from East New Orleans or New Orleans (and the aforementioned outlying areas).

I suspect what Stone has done is what lots of others have done before him, in researching novels or films, and that is he interviewed doormen and cab drivers and bartenders to come up with his setting, and these are absolutely the last people in town a researcher should ever ask questions of.

For instance, in probably most major cities, it would be valuable to query doormen and cab drivers as to the best places to eat or where the best entertainment can be found...but not in New Orleans. In New Orleans, cabbies and doormen and others who meet and greet the public are all part of a vast “steering” system, whereby whenever they direct a tourist or outsider to a certain establishment, they are comped a couple of bucks. It’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve only observed in New Orleans and am unaware of its being practiced to that extent anywhere else in the country.

A good example of how this “underworld commerce” work is seen in the popular movie, “The Big Easy.” That film was so full of holes it should have been premiered in Wisconsin, the land of cheese, Swiss and other porous varieties. For instance, no principal actor had a correct New Orleans accent, and only Dennis Quaid’s mother had even a Louisiana accent. The only problem was, she used a Cajun accent, and Cajuns aren’t indigenous to New Orleans, but more from western and southern Louisiana, in the bayou country which the Cajuns settled upon immigrating from Nova Scotia. Granted, there are Cajuns in New Orleans, but there are Cajuns in Los Angeles as well, which doesn’t make their patois the native one there any more than it does in the Big Easy. There are seven identifiable accents attributed to New Orleans natives and none of them even resemble a Cajun one, but to an outsider who doesn’t recognize the differences in the various parts of the state, it might appear to be part of the native tongue. Cajuns who do immigrate to New Orleans strive valiantly to lose their accent usually, because the perception of those from the city that those who speak in Cajun dialects are “countrified” or rural bumpkins. The classic New Orleanian accent, found in the inner city more closely resembles a Brooklyn accent than any other, and is spoken by those who grew up in the Quarters and to a line bounded by Canal and Magazine. There’s also an Uptown accent (actually two accents, depending on what part of Uptown one is from), a Downtown accent, an Irish Channel accent, a Ninth Ward (very distinctive!) accent, a Bucktown accent...and so on. No Cajun accents. There’s also a point in the movie where Quaid is in the bullpen with a bunch of other cops and the female interest, Ellen Barkin, and he gets ready to leave and he says, “I’ll see you guys.” (Italics mine). Not on your life! Not in New Orleans or anywhere else in the South would a native say “you guys”. Especially when a woman was present. They would have fallen on the floor howling and hooting. He would properly have said “y’all” (and not that moronic “you-all” only seen in the worst of movies and books).

In another scene, Quaid and Barkin go to Tipitina’s and he breaks through the waiting line to eat their food. Not something a native New Orleanian would consider. The only worse food in town is found at The Court of Two Sisters and a native wouldn’t risk being shot (very real possibility) jumping a line anywhere, much less gag down the swill served at Tipitina’s under any circumstances. The only people who go to either place are those steered there by doormen and cab drivers who then are comped a couple of bucks for their “tip” to the unsuspecting tourist.

The reason I mention this movie is that I suspect Stone gathered much of his material in the same way the associate producer who scouted locations for “The Big Easy” probably did, by hanging out in bars and restaurants and schmoozing with doormen for “inside” information. Not realizing no self-respecting doorman or cabbie would ever give away information about the truly good places to go--most natives of New Orleans want to make sure tourists don’t find out the good places and ruin them as they have the Quarters.

Another clue (to this reader) that Stone isn’t a native of New Orleans is that he refers to the Vieux Carre as “the Quarter” and this is always a red flag to the native who always refers to the old section in the plural. Only Armani-clad national news broadcasters and folks from Ames, Iowa call it the “Quarter”, and it causes many a native to grind his teeth upon hearing the area referred to in that manner.

The second point observed in Stone’s novel, was in how he drew his villains. His technique smelled of John Grisham’s own inimitable style of painting his bad guys (other than the out-and-out thugs) as fat-cat Republican lawyers. Francois Camoin, in a lecture at Vermont College once stated jokingly that he was “Church-burned”, and I suspect that Stone, like Grisham and a lot of other “New Southerners” is “conservative-burned” and this colors their take on the culture. Stone’s racism is more than a little stereotyped, and if he were a Northerner perhaps this could be excused, but as I expect him to be a Southerner himself, I find inexcusable. I personally think that to create truly memorable villains, they must be endowed with the same heroic qualities as the hero, and Stone fails to do that. His villains have power, but that is not the same as heroism, and for me that is the failing of the book. All his racist folks are made to appear totally stupid, ignorant or blind, and while in no way would I ever condone racism, in a literary sense characters that are all cut from the same bolt of cloth come across as wooden caricatures that are, in the end, unbelievable, or, at the very least (and especially condemning) uninteresting. The fact of the matter is, there do exist racists that are intelligent; it gets an easy laugh to utter that’s not an example of an oxymoron, especially when preaching to the choir, but it doesn’t advance truth much either. Fighting a lie with a lie results in nothing but yet another lie, and that is the danger in this kind of writing.

When civil rights legislation was imposed on the South in the sixties, a new generation was exposed to a litany that derided the old culture and caused young minds to feel tremendous guilt at what their forefathers had supposedly created; it is into this atmosphere I feel Stone’s values emerged and the result is the kind of characters he created in the novel.

That this appeals to the non-Southern critic is understandable; it endorses what they already believe to be true and the fact that it emanates from a “Southerner” makes it just that much more “factual”, and the judges of such awards as the Faulkner Award, most likely being Southerners themselves, are, I suspect, cast from the same mold as Stone himself, and his work assuages their own feelings of guilt. Prestigious awards and laudatory plaudits aside, the promotion of yet more stereotypes does more harm than good in arriving at any truth, even though this is assuredly an extremely unpopular position to take in these days of the holy P.C.

If William Faulkner were to select the winner of the award that bears his name, I truly believe he would have chosen the work of someone like Gilchrist rather than Stone, with whom I feel he would have found exception to, not in his writing ability, which is considerable, but in his portrayal of the truth. Faulkner himself wavered little from exposing truth, even when it was painful, whereas Stone confronts the enemy obliquely, if not unfairly, much as a bully would.


Unknown said...

Having lived in NO most of my life and within one hundred miles from there always, "I know what it means to miss New Orleans...."

When NO culture is portrayed inaccurately, it gets under my skin. During one of my UCLA classes a fellow student's story was set in NO and she had all these references to a local "cajun" accent. I tried to explain the difference but she wouldn't hear it. She told me she went to Tulane so she knew what she was talking about, although she was from California. This class was online so she didn't see my reaction. Annoyed, very annoyed. Whatever.

I'm impressed with all the points you've made in taking apart Gilchrist's story, "The Stucco House." I read the story without much thought to these things. I didn't have to think about them. It's why I love Ellen Gilchrist. I've been around her characters all my life. She's nailed them. In fact, she's made some New Orleanians angry being a little too accurate with certain characterizations. I remember overhearing such a discussion between two disgruntled uptown women wearing their tennis clothes in the check-out line at Langenstein's. It was like a scene straight out of one of her books. It is also true, I think, that even the reader from another culture who may not "get" the subtle references will come away with an authentic feeling of place and people.

One point you bring up about NO doesn't ring true to me, although you may very well be technically right--I've never known any local refer to the Vieux Carre as the "French Quarters." I've only known "The Quarter" or "The French Quarter." Now the way someone pronounces "New Orleans" is another thing. There are only three acceptable ways I know of to say "New Orleans" if you are a local. "New Or'-lee-ahns," "Norlenz," or "Nahlins." The latter is usually followed by, "Dahlin."

It was fun reading this post, Les. I enjoyed it as much as hearing your lecture about "Thelma and Louise" in Kentucky. What a great teacher you are! Now I'm inspired to read Robert Stone's, "Hall of Mirrors." I might have more comments then.

Les Edgerton said...

Good points, Pam! I'd like to know your take on Stone once you read him. I think he's a great writer, but just "misses" on New Orleans.