Russell's 'Jack' -- powerfully fragile

August 15, 1999|By Ben Neihart | By Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

"Yellow Jack," by Josh Russell. W. W. Norton. 224 pages. $23.95.

It is so easy for a novelist to get New Orleans wrong that I usually settle for accuracy rather than demand a new, startling vision of my favorite city. Anne Rice knows New Orleans. Poppy Brite knows New Orleans. John Kennedy Toole knew New Orleans. So did Walker Percy. Add James Lee Burke, Nancy Lemann, Louis Edwards. And now add Josh Russell, whose electrifying debut, "Yellow Jack," is one of the best first novels I've ever read. It's a book that restores my faith in the historical novel, fresh, jagged, elegant, and so emotionally engaging that I wanted, by God, to somehow will myself back in time, innoculated against that yellow fever devouring the city.

Claude Marchand, our guide through this New Orleans of the 1840s, is a photographer, a thief, an opium-head, a compulsive sex-addict, a liar and an incorrigible romantic who becomes famous for his portraits of the dead.

Russell trusts the reader, so he doesn't condescend, doesn't shovel the atmosphere too thick. I've always rather hated the word "evocative" but it fits here. Russell never describes New Orleans; he just puts you there: "I sat in the courtyard and smoked opium until the breeze ignored me and flowed through my bones. A boat was afire on the river and the column of smoke and flame rose above the rooftops. ... Down the slim alley paved with luminous crushed shell I could see children and dogs running to witness the disaster. ... I blinked, and when I opened my eyes the boat had burned out, dawn was flaming on a different horizon."

This is my favorite kind of prose -- meticulously arranged to give the illusion of offhand, naturalistic plain observation. It knocked me out in Denis Johnson's classic, "Jesus' Son." It killed me in Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage." Here it has a specific filmic quality, as if selected frames were removed so the scenes jump every now and then. The continuity remains, but there's a devastating fragility in every moment.

You never know when a building might be removed from the scene. Or a dog. Or a character you've come to love. This is a writer, you realize, who can really turn a story on its head with just a change of verb. I mean, how often do you read a scene as dazzling as "Yellow Dog"'s snowfall in New Orleans? It lasts just 13 lines, but it does the work of a dozen interior monologues and 20 pages of description and dialogue.

Claude Marchand photographs the dead, so, inevitably, with an epidemic raging, he ends up having to take photographs of people he loves. The inexorable progress of death doesn't make for a happy ending, but the ending here is heartening; it gives you courage somehow. Only one person close to Claude is still alive -- and in the book's closing pages we realize that she's always been the right partner for him. This is a man in ruins. This is a city choking in death. This is a book for the ages.

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published by Rob Weisbach Books under William Morrow publishers.

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