"Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy" by James Nolan, University of Mississippi Press, $25, 256 pages, cloth cover
In 1968 at the age of 19, James Nolan left New Orleans, and vowed never to return.
This is understandable considering in the months leading up to his departure his parents had committed him to a mental hospital. Was he mentally ill? He was on track to attend school at New York University where, according to his parents, he would fall in with drug dealers and communists. Every young person with a dream of living in New York City must be unhinged. Especially if he or she is a poet. Or so some parents believe.
Fortunately, Nolan, a fifth-generation New Orleanian, did return to the city of his birth, and his journey home is told in the magical memoir, "Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy."
His story begins with his memory of lying in bed in a darkened ward of the mental hospital, St. Vincent DePaul in Uptown New Orleans, on New Year’s Eve. As the residents of the city ushered in 1968 with fireworks, within the barred windows, the sound brought to Nolan’s mind the bombs that were exploding in Vietnam.
From the beginning, it is apparent that "Flight Risk" is not just a recounting of Nolan’s many adventures, but it also documents the times in which he experienced those adventures. This is what memoir should do, and this book gives even more. It's also the story of his Creole, Irish and Jewish ancestors, immigrants who settled in the French Quarter in the 19th century. Nolan paints a vivid picture of New Orleans at this time, as well as taking the reader on a trip back to the 1950s and '60s of his youth. And the trip is never dull.
Family stories may not always appeal to a reader who doesn’t know the family or even the author, but this author has a talent for bringing every character to life in a way that allows us to feel as if we know and care about these people. His compassion for them is contagious.
One such character is his dapper maternal grandfather, who, after losing everything in the 1929 market crash, regularly rode the streetcar on missions to a Canal Street jeweler to purchase diamonds. Eventually he had some of these diamonds set into a silver and gold question mark shape, and presented the jewels to a teenage Nolan. His inheritance, he calls it.
He writes, “But the inheritance from my grandfather is more than jewelry. If culture is experience refined through the passing of generations, then I received the equivalent of an inexhaustible trust fund. … Over the years I’ve come to view the various booms and busts of our times through the prism of my grandfather’s question mark.”
While the accounts of his often eccentric family are fascinating and entertaining, and the slices of New Orleans history edifying (Nolan’s explanation of Creole is dead on), Nolan’s own life will keep the reader turning the pages. A well-known poet, translator, essayist, short story author, teacher and novelist, he is known to many. But until now, how many really knew him?
In taking flight with this writer, we embark on a journey over four continents, spanning five decades, and with each new adventure we continue to be wowed. This “bad boy” has been around.
Nolan recounts living for the first time (he has lived there more than once) in San Francisco, a city he clearly loves, in the late 1960s. His association with the Cockettes, a gay theater group there, makes for illuminating reading.
The early 1970s took the author to South America and, by 1976, he and his college girlfriend were living in Guatemala. It was a life in paradise until the girlfriend became pregnant and returned to the States. Shortly thereafter, Nolan ended up in a Guatemalan jail on fabricated charges. It was only through the intervention of a local with some influence that he was released. He quickly fled Central America.
In a chapter called “I’ll Be Watching You,” he takes us to Beijing Normal University, where he and his girlfriend (in the guise of his wife) taught. This was 1984, and the school authorities made it clear to Nolan, a literature professor, he was not allowed to teach George Orwell’s "1984." Soon after hosting a Halloween disco party for students and faculty, Nolan and his “wife” flew the Chinese coop.
Spain is another locale dear to Nolan’s heart, even though the chapter that describes his first journey there in 1979 opens with this line: “The only time anyone has ever held a gun to my head, I was leading a double life in Madrid.” No reader will stop here. It seems that he was not exactly thrilled with Madrid following his experience, but after living in Barcelona for years, he made amends with Madrid and returned there to live and teach.
These examples barely scratch the surface of what the reader will discover in "Flight Risk." Nolan lived in hippie communes in Northern California and Vermont, has lived in Florida, New York City, Paris, Amsterdam and India. And of course, New Orleans.
The last few chapters are devoted to New Orleans and his return to the city in the late 1990s to assist his aging mother. His fear that the French Quarter may turn into a Disneyland-type tourist-only neighborhood is expressed brilliantly in a chapter called “Alone in the Urban Museum.” His description of the city and explanation of the events that occurred post-Katrina is riveting, and his memories of his mother’s last months are soul-stirring.
In the final chapter, “One Year and a Day,” Nolan shares with the reader the mourning customs of Creoles. He also shares how he ended grieving his mother’s death by preparing his grandmother’s gumbo recipe for friends and family, one year and one day after his mother’s passing. He also shares the recipe.
He writes, “Here some of us sing and holler and dance our grief second-lining during a jazz funeral. As the year-and-a-day marker approached, I decided to cook my grief, to end mourning by making gumbo — that togetherness dish — and by inviting friends and family who had supported me during my sadness to gather once again and — I don’t know what to call it — suck crab claws to glory.”
Nolan’s prose is rhythmic, poetic and a joy to read. It is often poignant, but never sentimental, and is frequently humorous. It is also honest. The author remembers the segregated South, the AIDS epidemic, past lovers alive and dead, and a culture that once cared for its elders at home.
How bad is this boy who came home to New Orleans to roost? Readers who participate in James Nolan’s journey will find out. And they will enjoy the trip.