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The first time I visited New Orleans, a beautiful young man, a stranger, approached me in the French Quarter, kissed me on the mouth suddenly, and whispered, âWelcome to New Orleans.â I have had a tender spot in my heart for the fabled city ever since. And so it was with great pleasure and anticipation that I picked up William Sterling Walkerâs debut collection of short fiction, Desire: Tales of New Orleans (Chelsea Station Editions).
I was not disappointed. New Orleans itself is the main character in each of the stories, sometimes as the actual mise-en-scĂ¨ne, sometimes as a yearning in the memory of someone whoâs left the Crescent City for a life up north. (The author is a native of New Orleans, now living in Brooklyn.)
âDesires wither the heart,â Lao Tzu warns us in the Tao Te Ching. âWhen there is no desire, all things are at peace.â In Walkerâs stories, thereâs plenty of desire. Peace, not so much. Itâs clearly pre-Katrina NOLA, but thereâs a metaphorical storm or two raging nonetheless. The players inhabit a pre-âcocktailâ gay demimonde, ducking into bar bathrooms to check for swollen glands, for new lesions.
Walkerâs âtalesâ surface as glimpses into the lives of his cast. A curtain is drawn and we observe them for a moment or two before it slides back, cloaking them in privacy once again. The technique works well, for it allows his people, somewhat catty and shallow upon first glance, the random freedom to dispense profound observations about painting, literature and music. I was dismissing âMiss Thingâ one moment, when suddenly â Shostakovich! â I was jolted into realizing that these seemingly one-dimensional folks have more going for them than Iâd first imagined.
This crew can be as mysterious and elusive as their city. Information about them is released slowly, often late in the game. On more than one occasion Iâd formed a mental picture, only to learn later that it was completely inaccurate in terms of, for example, race. (And, truth be told, Iâm still not sure if lounge singer Fortunate Champagne is a drag queen or a real woman trapped within a drag queenâs name.)
Desire is a guilty pleasure of a read, conversational and conspiratorial. Itâs almost as if these people are welcoming you into their private chats, dishing out the latest neighborhood gossip about who picked up whom, whose ex is now someone elseâs current. Its first-person stories seem to work best, sparkling with the directness and details of memoir. And so itâs odd to come across a moment or two where the language is remarkably leaden, throwing the reader off-track with what seems a clumsy, deliberate artfulness: âI see beneath his sedentary vigil anger, densifying on some focal point of concentration beyond the glass and whirling snow.â What?
Reading the stories can sometimes seem like an engaging game of chance in which the rules keep changing. The characters, though bearing different names from story to story, betray such striking similarities (the writer, the painter, the musician, the attorney, the grocery clerk, the Tulane student, et al.) that the tales are intriguingly linked. The reader must make sense of it all.
Approaching the book with a similar detectiveâs eye also unearths clues to authors Walker clearly admires. Tennessee Williams, of course. (This is New Orleans.) One sentence in the story âOdd Fellows Restâ (âLike the one-armed CafĂŠ du Monde waiter who buys three bags of sugar-free hard candy a dayâ) alludes to two of Williamsâ own story collections, One Arm and Hard Candy. There are also occasional nods to Nabokov, to Hemingway and a few admirable others.
For me, the best story is saved until last. In âRisk Factors,â a seemingly straight, married attorney in Manhattan slowly succumbs to his attraction toward other men, giving in to flirtations in a coffee shop and at a party. More than in any other story here, desire is right out there on the surface, suggestive and tantalizing in its edgy allure. And yet so hidden, so denied. The tension makes for great storytelling.
In âFin de SiĂ¨cle,â a wistful young man, while listening to Mozartâs B-flat piano sonata, observes, âYou feel music long before you understand it.â The same might be said of this impressive debut. As I was reading it, I felt as if I were being welcomed into a sometimes wise, sometimes wise-cracking crowd I half-wanted to join. But did I fully understand what Walker was trying to convey? Not really. Not yet. And thatâs part of the fun.
Desire: Tales of New Orleans
By William Sterling Walker
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9781937627027, 186 pp.