Andrei Codrescu's essays are a rich mix of serious opinions, humorously given

August 25, 1993|By William Robertson | William Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

A book with the title of this one is at least worth a look.

As it turns out, these 26 essays by Andrei Codrescu, best known bTC for his commentaries on public radio's "All Things Considered," are not only worth looking at but worth thinking about, too. Tart, aphoristic and often hilarious, they provide a semi-outsider's view of American culture.

Dr. Codrescu was born in Romania in 1946, grew up there under communism and came to the United States in 1966. His subsequent baptism in American culture was superseded only by his immersion in the American language. His mastery of English -- he teaches it at Louisiana State University, after spending several years teaching in Baltimore in the late 1970s and early '80s -- is in the tradition of other top-notch emigre writers. Joseph Conrad was one, Vladimir Nabokov another. Yet for all his outsider qualities, Dr. Codrescu is so much of America that he has the understanding of a native. There is a Twain-like feel to the way he looks at the world.

Now about that title, "The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans." It is the signature essay in the book, yet Dr. Codrescu saves it for last. It is an ode to New Orleans as a place of literary inspiration -- in the formal sense -- and a place where people spend as much care telling personal stories as they do preparing fine meals.

One story, for instance, concerns Frances Bultman, a patron of the arts and funeral home owner who is honored with a grand reception at a museum. A short time later she dies, and New Orleans society turns out for her funeral.

As Dr. Codrescu tells it, "A local artiste whispered that Frances looked much better than she did at the Museum where she had been (presumably) alive. Her grand-daughter-in-law, Bethany Bultman, who wrote a book on table settings, whispered into the artiste's ear: 'Of course she looks better, dear. . . . All her life she wanted [breasts]. . . . I gave her some.' "

Yet there's more to Dr. Codrescu than one-liners. In the New Orleans essay, he leavens the humor with insight, as when he speaks of historical continuity: "Old cities soothe and ease the pain of living because wherever you are someone else was there before, had troubles worse than yours, and passed on. I don't see how people can inhabit spanking new suburbs without succumbing to terminal anxiety. We need the dead to make us feel alive."

A further example of Dr. Codrescu's underlying seriousness is the book's first essay, "Against Photography," in which he tells of growing up as the son of photographers and assesses the abuses of photography in modern life.

"In short," he says, "the camera has conquered the world and the world it shows us is the way we now articulate reality. . . . Because of its teasing relation to reality, photography can be made to convince people of things that aren't necessarily good for them. Pictures can lie, transmit propaganda and change the evidence of one's senses to the point where reality disappears. Photographs make it also possible to substitute images for reality when the dread of the real becomes too unbearable."

Between the opening essay and the last, Mr. Codrescu sandwiches his opinions on, among other things, television and war, sports, communism and his native Romania, for which he still holds much love. He also takes a look at Robert Duvall playing Stalin and offers absolutely the last thing that ever needs to be said on Ed McMahon:

"American men grow fat on beer watching Ed. Watching women grow fat dreaming of Johnny. In the radiated blow glow of the vast North American continent, the females go to bed with Johnny. Nobody goes to bed with Ed. This doesn't bother Ed: he is fat and rich and can buy himself all the women he wants."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans and Other Essays"

Author: Andrei Codrescu

Publisher: St. Martin's

Length, price: 199 pages, $18.95

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