Sunday
Nov142010

My Bright Midnight

By Josh Russell



LSU Press
August 2010, Hardcover
152 pages
978-0807136966

 

Reviewed by Tom Williams


 

Five years after Katrina, the media is still trying to put into words the devastation wrought by the storm and its effect on the people of New Orleans—those who left the city for good as well as those who stayed behind. Yet it’s not surprising to see that in addition to all the Anderson Coopers and Brian Williamses and Harry Shearers, many writers also chase the essence of what defines this curious city. One thing remains evident: even the mammoth storm could not extinguish the fascination New Orleans exerts on so many. A short list of fiction writers bewitched by it might include George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole and Ishmael Reed. In his 1999 novel, Yellow Jack, Josh Russell made a stunning foray into capturing the city in prose. And in his new novel, My Bright Midnight, Russell makes such good use of the city, New Orleans seems an invention all his own.

In some ways, Russell’s fictional return to the Crescent City finds him on similar terrain as Yellow Jack. In that novel, Russell summons a version of New Orleans in the 1830s as complexly hypnotic as it is historically accurate. His principal point of view character, Claude Marchand, a French immigrant, experiences the city in a manner so sensually alive it allows the most jaded New Orleanian to see her city anew. In My Bright Midnight, Russell employs another immigrant narrator, Walter Schmidt, who believed his German soldier father had been killed by Americans in World War I and thus grew up a hater of America and all things representative of it. Of course, New Orleans has never been the most American of cities—it still seems the last bastion of the Old World in the New—but through Walter’s eyes, the city becomes even more entrancing, especially as Russell evokes it from Walter’s arrival in 1928 to 1945. A special note of praise should be made for this feat, as Russell writes summary—a feature missing from a lot of contemporary fiction—and scenes with equal facility, and manages to effectively render nearly twenty years’ time in a book that’s only 138 pages long. Throughout, he evokes the sensory aspect of the city:  “Sweet flowers and sour booze, fried fish and rank garbage, baking bread and burning tires: New Orleans’ tricky balance of perfume and stink.”

Such extremes can be found throughout the novel; in many ways My Bright Midnight (which refers to the noon hour that Walter, a night-shift baker, experiences) is a book of extremes: native/immigrant, fat/thin, solitude/community, plenitude/lack, single/married, love/hate. Walter Schmidt experiences most of these himself, journeying from a former hater of America to one who embraces baseball, votes for Roosevelt (three times!), and “stayed away from all things German.” He also transforms from a “fatso,” to a slimmer Walter who “began to hate fat people.” Perhaps most importantly for the plot of the novel, he leaves his solitary rented room and befriends Nadine and Sammy, two characters who alternately frustrate and aid Walter on his journey to husband and cuckold and husband again.

Given all this, one might think that My Bright Midnight heaves and writhes like a tawdry romance, yet Russell manages to avoid this through what might be the novel’s finest accomplishment: Walter Schmidt’s voice. Russell avoids exaggerating Walter’s skills with his second language while allowing him a kind of plainspoken yet poetic diction that is unsparingly precise, whether the subject is his body—“Stretch marks crossed my shrunken body. I looked like I’d been smashed and my pieces glued back together”—or the first sexual encounter with Nadine, his beloved: “Nadine was pale and lovely, naked save for a pair of panties the pink of her nipples.”

For me, what emerges from such passages is restraint. Russell, through Walter, never tilts too far in any emotional direction, skirts melodrama, and manages, to my mind, to maintain a tone that invites the reader to feel for Walter what he might not admit to or know fully. Maintaining that tone makes Walter the best kind of first person narrator, neither a know-it-all who doesn’t need us nor so unreliable that we never truly enter his world. Moreover, Walter’s discoveries—including his wife having sex with his best friend, a POW who might be his wronged cousin, a U-boat sinking a US ship in the Gulf, and his wife’s pregnancy—would seem to wreck another man, yet his voice never wavers: “I hated and loved Sammy equally; I wanted as much to save him as to damn him.”

From a woman who speaks only in lines from movies, to the detailed description of how to bake custard fried pies, to the clink of bottles of Jax and Falstaff beer, My Bright Midnight never dims. We find great humor when Walter overhears the exploits of Babe Ruth described and asks the bar’s patrons what “this Ruth” may have said about him. An on-the-lam jaunt to Florida features a scene in the saddest Episcopal church in Christendom. And Walter’s plan to win back enough money to pay Sammy’s gambling debts involves one of the daffiest kidnappings you’ll ever see. Yet even redemption is possible in My Bright Midnight. And maybe, just maybe, Walter and Nadine might be the kind of married couple we all should strive to be: tolerant, forgiving and hopeful. Again and again, Russell follows his characters as they pursue their own aims, and if he makes a mistake, I didn’t see it.

A word should be said here, too, about the publisher of My Bright Midnight, LSU Press. To some degree, it’s no surprise that they’d take a chance on a book like Russell’s.  A Pelican State institution, among its many accomplishments, LSU Press published A Confederacy of Dunces when no one would touch it and gave us Lewis Nordan’s first two collections of stories. It’s worth saying again: given what the New York houses keep foisting on us, where would we readers be without presses like LSU?

Further, where would we be without books like My Bright Midnight? I’m hopeful it gets the readership it deserves. I also hope that Russell returns to the fabled city that care forgot, but if he doesn’t, between Yellow Jack and My Bright Midnight, he has established himself as one of New Orleans’s best chroniclers, as well as a novelist whose work we have ample reason to read over and over.