“You Don’t Know Me: New & Selected Stories” by James Nolan. University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2014. $20.
Anyone who is familiar with New Orleans knows it is home to a population that is soulful, proud, creative and often quirky, to say the least. No one knows New Orleans and her colorful residents better than James Nolan, a fact that is in delightful evidence in his new short-story collection, “You Don’t Know Me.”
The characters that inhabit these 20 stories are people we are used to seeing in New Orleans. An elderly lady waiting at a bus stop on Jefferson Highway, a crew of construction workers in the French Quarter, a king of a Mardi Gras krewe proudly waving to his subjects from his float as it rolls along St. Charles Avenue, a Tulane University professor. We think we know these people. But once we get to know them “inside the courtyard gates,” as the first section of the book is titled, life gets much more interesting. The collection begins with the French Quarter set “Reconcile,” and ends with the poignant “What Floats,” which both deal with events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Everything in between is regular everyday life in New Orleans. For some people anyway. The author, a fifth-generation New Orleanian, knows his territory well. He knows how New Orleanians speak and his dialogue is a delight to read. You can hear the voices of these characters as they argue with or comfort one another.
While each story is solidly entertaining, each one also reveals a great deal about the culture of the city, both present and past
The current hip music scene on Frenchman Street is the setting for the story “The List,” about two former classmates revisiting old haunts during their 40th high school reunion, but here Nolan reminds us that the French Quarter was once a Sicilian neighborhood, as well as home to a number of establishments that catered to Greek sailors.
In the haunting story “Hard Freeze,” we meet Émile Jackson, an internationally known concert pianist, who has journeyed from his home in New York to New Orleans to perform. Upon his arrival, he finds New Orleans enduring unusually frigid temperatures.
The tone of the story is set from the first sentence, “By the time the famous pianist arrived in New Orleans everything was already dead.” Jackson, a Creole of color whose late father hailed from the city’s Seventh Ward, is ironically provided accommodations in the “vacation slave quarter” owned by the exuberant Mrs. McNamara of the Save Our Symphony Committee.
The language in this story is as lush as the New Orleans vegetation before the freeze, and by its end Jackson has learned many lessons, not the least of is, “where the music came from.”
Nolan’s prose is poetic in its intensity, which is not surprising since the author is an award winning poet, as well as a noted essayist and translator. He knows his craft well. Each story is beautifully constructed, and the reader will never confuse one character with another. They are all New Orleanians, but each one is distinct. And no matter how kooky they may be, Nolan treats them all with respect. This is where Southern gothic meets dark comedy. Just when you don’t expect it, you’ll be laughing out loud and cheering for these folks you’ve just had the pleasure to meet.