His place and his people
FORGET The Big Easy and James Bond’s alligator-hopping scene in Live and Let Die . If you want to find the real New Orleans, open Tim Gautreaux’s new novel, The Missing . Like New York or Paris, New Orleans finds itself fabricated and rhapsodised in song, film and literature. But none has been the subject of lazier caricature than the City that Care Forgot.
Tim Gautreaux has built his literary career on chronicling the rich language and culture of Louisiana. If he says they talk that way, they do. And if he feeds his characters a dish, you’d better believe that’s what the real folks eat.
In the tradition of Faulkner or Joyce ( or for that matter, Philip Roth or Nadine Gordimer), Gautreaux mines a deep cavity — his own place and people and their concerns — that he may never exhaust. The world of literature is all the richer for it.
Gautreaux is a distinguished author who realises that, first and foremost, most readers want a story, a believable one that rolls without hiccup, plausibly entertains, invites questions and emotion, grips the reader without slack.
The Missing , set in 1920s New Orleans and its surrounds, provides all that and more. Gaut- reaux has placed each character and scene — every comma — with the care and skill of a master whose ego is nothing in comparison to his concern for the work.
Here is a storyteller with a yarn that readers won’t want to interrupt.
Sam Simoneaux, small-town Louisiana boy just back from the war, has a job he loves ( head floorwalker of Krine’s department store), a loving wife and the memory of his baby son who died of a fever.
He has regrets from his brief tour of duty in France, though he missed any real action, arriving just after the Armistice. Back in New Orleans, where he can play the music he loves, life can’t get much better. And it doesn’t.
On his watch, a couple loses their young daughter in the store. He hunts for her but doesn’t lock the building. The parents blame Sam, whose boss fires him. He can reclaim his job only if he recovers the lost girl.
In a less believable novel, Sam would leap into the streets and leave no stone unturned until he could place Lily back in her mother’s arms. In The Missing , he wonders whether it really is his fault at all. And even if it is, where can he possibly begin?
The distraught parents, Ted and Elsie Weller, are jazz musicians, wending their way up and down the Mississippi on an excursion steamer, stopping at towns along the river to provide a night’s dancing.
They’re due to leave, and have no money to fund the search. Sam must continue it for them.
He joins the boat, serving as third mate and relief pianist, with a goal to search every town