New Orleans fiction has its comic juggernauts (John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces), literary reveries (Walker Percy's The Moviegoer), gothic horror stories (by Anne Rice) and crime novels (by James Lee Burke).
Now comes The Sound of Building Coffins, by first-time novelist Louis Maistros. It's a macabre and utterly hypnotic feat of literary imagination, an extended tale of voodoo and jazz in the Crescent City, circa the turn of the 20th century. The novel is so fluently delivered that it sometimes feels as if it were being channeled via the same spirits — evil and good — that inhabit these richly drawn characters.
Maistros, a New Orleans record-store owner and former forklift operator with no formal training as a writer, has crafted a work spiked with historical characters and events, so striking and original that it probably deserves a place on the shelf of great fiction from his adopted hometown.
The novel, written before Hurricane Katrina, closes with another mighty flood, as a fictitious version of real-life musical innovator Buddy Bolden — sometimes credited with inventing jazz — stands on the roof of a building that's being dismantled by the storm. He raises his beloved cornet to his lips and sends a song of salvation into the darkened skies. The same night corpses, loosened from graves in a city below sea level, rise by the dozens.
"As the city dies, so the city is reborn," Maistros writes, wielding a sentiment of hope that's been expressed frequently in New Orleans in recent years.
That's just one of many engaging set pieces that sustain a distinctively strange narrative centered in part on the vibrant life and tragic loss experienced by the Morningstar family, a clan led by a gospel preacher who chose to name all of his children for diseases.
The Sound opens with a singularly bizarre sequence, as 9-year-old Typhus Morningstar pulls a trio of aborted babies from a burlap sack and places them in the waters of the Mississippi River. There, his pure love and his singing of an old spiritual combine to provide the fetuses a "water birth" during which they are transformed into catfish.
The book's extended cast of characters, including the Morningstars, whose home is little more than a mile away from storied Congo Square, live in a world that's often unkind and seldom gentle. The men, aside from Bolden, are mostly gamblers, drinkers, con men, abortionists, sailors on leave, prison guards, grave diggers or Yankees looking to make a killing down South.
The women, other than Gloria Morningstar, who died giving birth to Typhus, and voodoo queen Malvina Latour (another historical character), are hangers-on, mourning mothers, barmaids or Storyville sex workers, some of whom claw their way up from claustrophobic street-front "cribs" to upscale houses of ill repute.
A historical event forms the backdrop for the story: In 1891, nearly a dozen Italian immigrants were lynched by a mob seeking revenge for the murder of police superintendent David Hennessey. The imagined sequel to the hate crimes has a group of seven, including Typhus and sister Diphtheria Morningstar, Bolden and a newspaper reporter, face down a demon possessing the soul of Dominick Carolla, the baby son of one of the lynched Sicilian men.
The exorcism results in bloody murder, and the events of that day resonate throughout the novel, as Bolden's playing grows in power and stature, Diphtheria gains fame as a high-class lady of the evening and Typhus runs headlong into a twisted love affair. And the Mississippi rushes on, playing witness to and sometimes participating in multiple acts of birth, death and rebirth.
Maistros handily gets inside the heads of his characters, using vivid descriptions and apropos vernacular to bring to life a wildly conceived world, one informed by accounts of the actual place and time. He occasionally takes risks, gambling that readers will follow him through dark byways with no clear payoff. The results, more often than not, are transporting.
Tampa writer and musician Philip Booth blogs at www. betweenthegrooves.wordpress.com.