For writer and New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker, the publication of Letters From New Orleans represents a bit of a failure.
Of course, he says, he's thrilled to see his first book in print. And he couldn't be happier with New Orleans publisher GK Darby's Garrett County Press, which is publishing Letters in July (see www.gcpress.com for more information.) Plus, the first review is in: Publisher's Weekly enthused that the book's rewards come from Walker's ability to stray off center and immerse himself in the local scene.
But when Walker began a series of online "letters" during his three years (2000-2003) in New Orleans, he had hopes that it would help change the way writers use the Internet. It didn't.
"On some level, this thing started as an attempt to use the Web for something more adventurous than blogging," says Walker, who's written for Slate among numerous print magazines. "So much of the nonfiction market is moving toward shorter, faster, fluffier, more topical and meaner, and blogs seem to be accelerating every one of those trends." When he started emailing his observations and reporting his three years in New Orleans, he thought he would build on the type of online first-person narratives he'd seen by writers such as Sarah Vowell and Jonathan Ames on the short- lived www.openletters.net. But at its peak, Walker's emailings were reaching maybe 200 people. "Much smaller than the most minor blog imaginable," he admits.
But if he didn't change the Internet, Walker did contribute to the literature of the city. And although he didn't adopt New Orleans as his own, he baby-sat it long enough to learn how to separate the real from the make-believe. In addition to charting the path of "St. James Infirmary," he writes about attending Gennifer Flowers' club and Michelle Shocked's church, and reports on Mardi Gras, Ernie K-Doe's funeral and issues surrounding the Desire Housing Project. Throughout, Letters From New Orleans doesn't shatter stereotypes -- it just holds them up long enough for Walker to peer at them from new angles.
Most of all, Walker says, he learned that life really does play out differently down here. "I was skeptical that that would really pan out," he says. "I thought, OK, there'll be differences at the margins, it's going to feel like a different place for few months, but then it will feel like everywhere else." But the differences proved ineradicable -- especially the city's stubborn resistance to measure its days by how much gets accomplished.
"I always tell people that when you go to a party in New York, people ask what you do, what are you working on now, what have you achieved, what is your place in the pecking order. In New Orleans, they get your name and they just talk to you. 'You want a beer?' -- that's the question. For better or worse."
Despite all this -- and despite the comfort level that Walker, a native of Katy, Texas, felt in New Orleans -- he and his girlfriend returned to New York in 2003. Soon after, New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati offered him the chance to write "Consumed," a regular column examining the larger meanings of consumer items ranging from jewelry to soap. In Letters, Walker wrote that he left New Orleans "for reasons that remain unclear," and he now declines to elaborate -- but adds that he and his girlfriend still talk about relocating to New Orleans yet again.
Plus, even when he speaks by phone from New York, he says "here" to refer to New Orleans.
"There's more depth here than I expected, more surprises around the corner in all parts of the city," he says. "There's the facade, and there's always something behind the facade. It's a very New Orleans thing."