Thought I heard Buddy Bolden shout. Before the storm, when ordinary ruin festooned the smoldering cracked streets of the Marigny where I would wander, go-cup in hand. Always deserted at that time of day, on the concrete lip of the R Bar, across from rows of shotgun shacks, each painted a different whore’s pastel. That time James and I stood in one of them, half-abandoned, utilities long dead, flaps of wallpaper hanging down like skin, a long walk from the front room where the light was to the grease-blackened kitchen to get another bottle of Jax out of the propane-powered fridge. Local color, local color. That’s what the painter, another white man, possibly homosexual, possibly with AIDS, all tall raw bone and thorns in a khaki shirt and bell-bottoms and no shoes, the better to show off his dirty prehensile toes with the turquoise polish beginning to flake off the nails. Slapping color on the canvas, greens and yellows and browns, a sick figure in the joints—that’s on the canvas—abstractly expressing out of memory what became a shit-black time-stamped live feed of a gusher a mile below the sickly green sheen of the poisoned Gulf. What the painter saw, what James captured with his heavy Nikon: not what was painted but the painting itself, the standing aloof from the canvas in a series of stills then birding back up to it for another brushstroke, another hard or soft dab, top of a pizza box for a palette, horror in visible bones, the future hard coming. And me the dumb witness, oblivious owner of a pair of retinas, superfluous in pasty skin, sweating, beer in hand, while outside the sun of the irrelevant Nineties beat down harder than before, half-filtered by slatted blinds fronting the street where a solitary black bum was weaving by, glad rags, eyes shadowed under a Saints cap, knock-kneed and slow, lifting a wine bottle like a horn to his mouth.
In a city of fantasy, a city of layers, like Venice, with an outside that tantalizes and an inside that can only be imagined but is probably hard and chewy and historical like the plastic Jesus inside every king cake. The elite donning their jeweled masks to flock together in force, high on floats above the crowd being drawn slowly as though by oxen, responding with laughing magnanimity to the ecstatic, anguished cries of the outsiders: Throw me something, Mister! A shower of trinkets—more plastic—beads, medallions, go-cups, inscrutable spectacle entirely unlike the dream of writing inside me as I stand to one side, sour-eyed, or take flight entirely to Biloxi. Entirely unlike writing for Mardi Gras represents only itself: it floats almost freely from its origins, singing farewell to the flesh not for one Tuesday but for weeks in advance, again and again the parades turn the corner down Carrolton, down St. Charles, down Poydras, again and again the residents in their lawnchairs with coolers crammed with bottles of Abita and Bud, watching another procession grind its way into the Quarter where the tourists are flashing their tits and vomiting on each other’s shoes in crowds so dense one cannot move of one’s own free will but is pulsed this way and that to some hard boundary: a wall, a balcony, a lamppost. But other times one can move about with a nearly disconcerting freedom: the city is organic, shaped to the belly of the river, with streets like alleys and streets like endless barren plains and streets like water and streets like the insides of a vast ruined factory, but almost no streets in the sense that a Northeasterner habituated to New York and its suburbs can recognize. Instead there are esplanades, strands, boulevards, lapping gently and insistently at the invisible boundaries of neighborhoods and states of mind like the vast trembling platter of Lake Pontchartrain pressing down on Metairie and Gentilly like the aura before a migraine, spreading splashes of post-apocalyptic light that gradually erased my vision until only the light was left. I sat at the keyboard, smoking ineptly; I haunted the used bookshops of the Quarter and inhaled the musk of antique shops on Magazine Street; I loitered at the gates of walled courtyards with walls topped by shards of glass embedded in concrete imagining Baudelairean perfumes: drunk, I prowled up and down Pirates Alley off of Jackson Square in front of Faulkner House Books reciting the words engraved on the historic marker plaque affixed to a wall of sallow brick:
HERE IN 1925
WROTE HIS FIRST NOVEL
The plaque goes on to inform the passerby that the building itself dated back to 1840, and before that the site had been occupied by part of the yard and buildings of the French colonial prison. Mesmerized by the awful iron solidity of the historical marker, the obscurity of the novel in question (and what happened to the possessive apostrophe in “Soldiers”?) I rammed up against the guarantee of immortal fame crammed anachronistically between the act that launched that ship of fame (WROTE HIS FIRST NOVEL) and the name WILLIAM FAULKNER which could not and was not at that time (1925) and place (HERE) a NOBEL LAUREATE but only William Faulkner, whom Wikipedia tells us was before 1918 only William Falkner, with no u (and no U), a college dropout and poet whose application to join the U.S. Army Air Corps had been rejected owing to his diminutive stature; a decidedly unambitious bookstore clerk and failed postmaster, as well as a Boy Scout scoutmaster forced to resign his post for “moral reasons,” a friend to Sherwood Anderson (who?) with no visible means of support squatted in this yellow brick house looming before me like a closed face and pounded out a novel two or so years before inventing Yoknapatawpha County and its celebrated citizens Joe Christmas and Thomas Sutpen and the Compsons—Caddy and Benjy and suicidal Quentin sobbing his eyes out and protesting too much about the awful crucible of his birthplace, the South: I dont hate it! he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont! I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!
In the damply rusted darkness of an autumnal New Orleans night, yards from the hothouse revelry of Bourbon Street, I paced drunkenly in front of that house, willing some sign, embarrassed and absurd and triumphing in my embarrassment and absurdity, almost consciously protagonizing the moment as if foreseeing this moment when I would become a character in the narration of a wiser, older self whose connection with the frenzied and pitiable young man I was would become all the more ineluctable and inevitable by virtue of the mental selfie of this desperate young would-be writer, marooned in Pirates Alley with a go-cup in his hand. As though such antics and not steady tedious application formed the royal road from then to now, from failing if not yet failed writer to the self that, whatever his other shortcomings, has earned a sort of continuance, putting down the filled pages one by one, not bothering to print them and fan them like a riverboat dealer with a deck of cards, somewhat to his own amazement an author, though not yet of a novel, the Novel, the book of redemption half-formed on my younger self’s hard drive, lurking now almost complete in a box in the basement of the building where I now live. What I wanted: salvation, reparation, “large recompense” as at the end of Milton’s Lycidas, to wipe the tears for ever from my eyes. Whatever it was I then set down, whatever, the most errant nonsense or inconsistently plotted morass or derivative aesthetic argument, was all right provided it could be embraced eventually by two covers, the ever-loving arms of the book that would justify my life, written not for pleasure or out of the desire to entertain but for an audience of one: my best, most compassionate, most forgiving future self, a bearded, older but somehow not old edition with eyes as gray and accepting as the sea (but my eyes are brown and I’ve never worn a beard; but the gray shoots are starting in my hair and they won’t be stopped), sitting with a sigh ages hence in an armchair, the out-of-print volume at hand, THE FIRST NOVEL by ME, the ME MYSELF, the object, manifest destiny that I alone in that alley could taste behind the bile in back of my throat.
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
If the child is father to the man that youth, crazed with unhappiness and ambition, stands in the same relation to me now as the imaginary graybeard did to him. And through a kind of reverse engineering I am now trying, in these pages, to make him alive again. As he tried to make, to imagine, my “success.”
It’s not what he dreamed.
Not the drowned city of 2004, scanned and circled from above by childlike gods, news helicopters and Air Force One; not the city of houses marked by the angel of death with bodies decomposing in attic crawlspaces; not the carefully reconstructed City that Care Remembered composed by David Simon and Bunk from The Wire with a trombone pressed to his lips. Just a night with my girlfriend in her second-story apartment on Maple Street in early May, 1995, in Uptown, a few blocks from the campus where she studied law, a few blocks from the St. Charles streetcar that I never got tired of riding with its wooden benches and brass fixtures and the strange soughing sound made by the undercarriage when the driver put on the brakes, sounding always to my ears like a woman sobbing or breaking off from sobbing to address some practical matter like a ringing phone or crying children. It was a cool night and the open gas fireplace that was the one-room apartment’s primary source of heat was flickering bluely, while a heavy rain curtained the big window by the bed overlooking a magnolia tree with blossoms pressing wetly against the glass. The sound of the rain was continuous, a rolling roar like gravel on the rooftop that forced us to raise our voices to be heard. Though we were probably silent, on opposite sides of the large room, her squatting on the bed surrounded by law books, me hunched at the kitchen table with the ruins of my manuscript heaped up around me. I shuffled through the pages, trying to imagine an order for them that would rescue the book from inertia, ennui, and contempt—rescue it, in other words, from its author, whose smooth path to literary glory had suffered what seemed the insurmountable check of rejection from all four of the graduate writing programs to which he had applied the preceding autumn. It had never occurred to him that he would face rejection of this nature or, as he felt it, on this scale. Yes, of course Iowa was always going to be a long shot for anyone who hadn’t already published a book edited by Gordon Lish, but NYU? Columbia? How could his triumphant return to the East Coast, his inevitable destiny as a writer living and working in New York, the land of Oz brought into tenuous visibility every week of my life by the massive diorama, easily six inches thick, of the Sunday New York Times of 1995, have been so abruptly and unceremoniously foreshortened? And if he was not a writer, what was he?
Only my girlfriend of everyone in all the world knew that I was a writer, and for her it was a fact of scant importance; for her books were instruments and tools, means to an end and never the end itself, and as a consequence she never read them any more: it was as though the books she had read in college had been enough for her, a sufficient store or supply. Anyone was a writer; she was a writer, she said, and it was indisputable that nowadays she was the only one producing any pages, albeit in the form of papers and briefs. She resented her destiny: the thought of practicing law filled her with loathing and despair. But at least she had a destiny. And she would, once a lawyer, live in language in a manner I could almost find enviable, for the law is composed of words, entirely of words, which under the aegis of law take on a kabbalistic power to liberate and destroy, to imprison and create. Words would belong to her and the tribe of shysters she was dragging herself toward, kicking and screaming, in a way they could never belong to me. At best I was a poet, which is another word for failed writer; it is a truth universally and silently acknowledged that a poet is not a writer, is the antithesis of a writer; a writer at least has a craft, tells stories, can be gainfully if meagrely employed by textbook companies and PR firms. To be a poet was very nearly to be nothing at all, as John Keats knew, writing his brother in 1818: A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body. Yes, continually in for it, the Poet, whose only role in America, as Saul Bellow’s Charlie Citrine observed, was to be dead: The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is too overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs.
Isn’t that why I’d come to New Orleans in the first place: because it wasn’t America, not really; because childishness, madness, and drunkenness were the calling cards of this strange defeated Caribbean port dangling almost non-contiguously from these United States, neither land nor water, where poetry or at least song ruled the streets and ecstasy—whether the ecstasy of the saints, blues, and jazz or the more synthetic ecstasy of Bourbon Street and drive-thru daiquiri joints, not to mention the ecstasy of Ecstasy—was worshipped, had pride of place over getting and spending. It was, fundamentally and atavistically, a gift economy that governed New Orleans: yes, there were hustlers on every corner but there was a great purity to that characteristic gesture of Mardi Gras, the outstretched hand and the cry Throw me something mister! and the strands of brightly colored plastic beads that, for one delirious moment, precisely because they were so gratuitously bestowed, arcing through the air into the million-handed crowd, seemed more valuable than gold. Here the graves were above ground and palaces were built on stench; here the windows were balconies and the streets were a theatre; here carne vale, the farewell to the flesh, was continually renewed, so that that farewell of ecstasy was also and always a jubilant reunion, a recognition scene, human beings giving humanness back to themselves and each other. What better place for a poet, in exile from ambition and the money instinct? If only I could free myself from the itch to write, the manic ungovernable itch that for months now I had been unable to scratch. Isn’t the truest calling of the poet NOT to write? Not to be any sort of identity but only a habit of attention, a way of caring or not caring? Not identity, but being? My girlfriend looked up.
“How long has it been raining?” she asked.
I started from my reverie. It had indeed been raining for quite a long time. In fact, it had been raining hard without a break from dinnertime (take-out Thai) to… what time was it now? It was past ten o’ clock.
“Jesus, look at that,” she said, looking out the window.
I stood to look. The street had vanished, replaced by a living black stream in which the unextinguished streetlamps were eerily reflected. The water was thigh-high or higher. The roofs of partially submerged cars glimmered like wet metallic postage stamps.
We went downstairs, the rain still coming down so hard it seemed to drum on the sides of the house as well as its roof, and out onto the broad front porch. Water was licking the topmost steps. The lights were still on in all the houses, and there were a few people, guys, wading their way up the street with their hands up over their heads like prisoners of war. We decided to try and save our cars: I had a little Civic hatchback that I needed for my messenger job, while she drove a white two-door speedster, a Mazda, to which she was passionately attached. Naturally I helped push her car first. We were just west of Carrollton Avenue and the levee was only a block and a half away: as we slogged wetly down the street we saw a dozen other cars sprouting from the grassy sides of the levee like mushrooms. With the help of a couple of the burlier POWs who had already rescued their own automobiles we got her car partway up the side where there was space and then forced open the two doors: water came pouring out in long streams. I didn’t want to bother with my car—it seemed to have been parked on a lower side of the street and the water was already over the headlights, which surely meant the engine had been completely flooded. She told me not to be a defeatist and once again we began the nightmarish slog through the heavy water, she reaching in through the open driver’s side window to manage the steering wheel while I strained at the rear bumper, slipping in my soaked sneakers and weighed down by the water in my jeans. When we got back to our block the lights were still blazing and the bartenders of the little tavern kitty-corner to her place were handing out free drinks to the small crowd of mostly young people who had come out to enjoy the flood. The rain had lessened perceptibly by this point but it was still a downpour, and we all instinctively crowded against the walls of the bar for the small shelter of the eaves. A man paddled by in a canoe, itself full of water, with half of a six-pack floating between his knees. We waved. He waved back.
The Times-Picayune explained what had happened the next day: a cold front had parked itself directly over the city and the levee system, designed to keep the Mississippi River out, had instead kept the rainwater in, so that the whole of New Orleans had filled like a bathtub, with twenty-four inches in twenty-four hours the official rainfall total total for the Tulane area. It took a day and a half to pump the water out. Homes were damaged, corpses floated. An army of insurance agents descended on hotels and motels in Metairie and Kenner, and my girlfriend and I joined the long lines of people with claims, for both of our cars had been totalled in spite of our rescue efforts. But no personal property had been damaged: her apartment was safe up on the second floor, and though my own place was a garden apartment, a cinderblock basement in spirit if not in actuality, it was in the Quarter, which passed for high ground in this half-reclaimed wetland of a city. But it was this event which precipitated my surrendering the apartment—some hazy notion of safety, though whether moving toward or away from it I couldn’t say—and a week after the flood found me living with my girlfriend on a permanent basis. Not long after that my novel found its final resting place in a cardboard Xerox box I’d stolen from the office, parked permanently under the kitchen table with the bankers boxes of files that follow lawyers and law students like implacably loyal dogs.
Not long after that I had a dream. The water was rising and rising, and the two of us were sleeping, entangled limb by limb in the bed. The water poured silently into the windows, setting furniture afloat: chairs, tables, the bed itself. The box holding my manuscript floated out the window, kissed by the heavy blossoms of the magnolia tree, and out into the street and over the tops of houses and out over the levee where the Mississippi was spreading its skirts. There the box dissolved, and the pages of my novel, one by one like liveoak leaves, separated from each other, drifted like boats, until they covered the water. Hundreds of white pages, a little armada of my thwarted ambitions. And then, one by one, they sank, or disintegrated, or were speared out of the water like fish by great white pelicans that came flapping and calling up from Lake Pontchartrain and then up, up, into the swollen red sun, long wedged beaks working over the pages, filling the goiterish lumps of their throat pouches with paper, up and out from Louisiana, and out over the Gulf of Mexico, over all the dreaming waters, vanishing from my sight.
 Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift (New York: Penguin Books, 1973): 118.