His place and his peo­ple

Jen­nifer Levasseur

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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