Reconstituting The American Dream
Review by Joseph Clifford
The single from Bruce Springsteen’s latest blue-collar battle cry, Wrecking Ball, is called “We Take Care of Our Own.” I’m a faded jeans and white T-shirt-wearing guy who loves the New York Yankees and Catcher in the Rye; I am as American as they come. I am not dissing the Boss. But he’s full of shit on this one. The song, a post-Katrina anthem, draws heavily on the 2005 hurricane and the devastation wreaked on New Orleans, where the failure of government to bail out the poor and suffering prompts neighbors to band together and pick up the slack, hands getting dirty, brother helping brother. It works well in song; it’s a comforting thought to believe we are not alone.
Except, when the bottom falls out, we are.
This is the driving force behind Death Wishing, by Laura Ellen Scott, which takes that 2005 tragedy and tries to make sense of the nonsensical. Death Wishing is fantasy, although in literary terms it is what we call magic realism, a genre easily criticized, as it too often offers convenience and contrivance in lieu of actual plotting, often stopping just short of the mechanical hand of God lifting everyone to safety. But that doesn’t happen here. There are no shortcuts, only the hardscrabble lessons learned from gathering broken pieces and starting over again.
Scott employs a far-fetched concept that could’ve been a disaster in lesser hands: post-hurricane deathbed wishes that sometimes come true—including, in no particular order, clouds turning orange, cancer being cured, a truly bottomless cup of coffee, and the return of the King (not the hobbit variety, the real thing, as in Elvis, vintage 1968)—but rather than allowing the device to overpower the story, Scott wisely relegates it to supporting detail, using it to compose a surreal landscape while she paints the tender portrait of a man at a middle-aged moral crossroads.
Newly divorced, North Virginian transplant Victor Swaim designs corsets and capes in the French Quarter. He spends the rest of his time getting drunk with his big-boned libertine buddy, Martine, eating decadent foodstuffs (before getting serious about slimming up), and lusting after the next-door neighbor, Pebbles, a wayward, tone-deaf blues singer who is obviously in love with someone else. His son, Val. For whom Victor also works and rents that room. Not sure how much more emasculating it gets than having your wife leave you for another man and being forced to seek shelter with your twenty-something son (whom you then watch fuck the woman you love), but those late-night testosterone-boosting commercials must start looking pretty tempting.
Death Wishing explres Victor’s feelings of powerlessness by tying them to the fate of a city in crisis. New Orleans is integral to this novel. The events that transpire in the book wouldn’t make any sense if they were taking place in Chicago or New York or even a flamboyant free-for-all like San Francisco. Mardi Gras and the Ninth Ward are as much a character as Val and Pebbles.
Like New Orleans, Victor emerged from the aftermath on shaky footing, desperate for something to believe in again as the wishes started coming true. By reimaging what would happen if the same gods who turned their backs on Bourbon Street suddenly offered up a consolation prize, Laura Ellen Scott puts the dreamers and the opportunists on stage together and lets human nature take over.
It’s not as simple as wanting a better life, and the results that transpire are often, at best, a sideways move. All the wishes made don’t come true, and the ones that do don’t always originate in New Orleans, but it feels like the Death Wishing phenomena is all about New Orleans, which thrusts the Gulf Coast enclave back into the epicenter, all eyes intently fixated on it for what will happen next. In a twist of fantasy, a city forgotten has suddenly become a city scrutinized.
The storyline centers on the Death Cults that begin to sprout up and try to curry (i.e., strong arm) favor with those about to die, often by helping speed the process along, a sort of new-age robbery, like following someone to the ATM as they cash out, only here quite literally. The bad guy in all this is a religious phony named Pere Qua, who like any cult leader plays on the weak’s willingness to be led, which propels our previously inactive hero into action. As Qua tightens his grip on Pebbles, Victor is forced to take a stand. There are other subplots involving a gang of skateboarding punks (in capes), a crusading junkie and symbolic mugging victim, as well as a tasty new breed of buttery shrimp. But these elements take a backseat to the second coming of hope restored, here best evidenced by the resurrection of the original rags-to-riches rock ’n’ roll icon, Elvis, and all the promise he represents. As Victor narrates: “[This] was no run of the mill pop star; [the return of Elvis] was the reconstituted American Dream.”
Victor reports the odd details of this new world order with the detached reportage of the war-weary journalist who has seen too much to be shocked by anything anymore, whether that’s Elvis being shot at by secret police in the rugged wild west, or the coffee mug that now never runs dry. Novelty becomes commonplace. “Is there any condition more unfairly maligned than normal life?” Victor muses. “It was all habit now, like something that had always been. Amazement was overrated. Adventure was not even possible.”
There is a pressure to return to normalcy, which is a normal reaction when everything is turned upside down, and for a long time, this is what Victor thinks he wants. Except when his wife rejoins the family in New Orleans and he’s presented with the opportunity, he knows he’s come too far to turn around. All the lamenting on what has been lost is not going to bring back the dead (Elvis notwithstanding).
Katrina made us look at American life differently, and not just in terms of FEMA (here lampooned by the T-shirt Victor wears: Find Every Mexican Available). However undesirable, catastrophe presents the opportunity to evolve. This is certainly what happens with Victor, who comes to realize that his love for Pebbles betrays selfishness; the higher calling demands altruism and guidance.
“I was still mulling over the possibility of making the sacrifice and putting [Pebbles’s] needs above mine,” Victor says as he concludes a parable that ends with a little girl returning to her home in Arkansas. “I wasn’t surprised,” he adds. “New Orleans, for Pebbles, was a failed experiment.” Much like the wishes themselves.
Joseph Clifford is editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive and producer of Lip Service West, a reading series in Oakland. His story collection Choice Cuts is out now (Snubnose Press). His novels Wake the Undertaker and Junkie Love are also slated for publication later this year. Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.