A nomination for Shaik’s memorable protagonist
by Rien FertelMid-September delivered arguably the biggest book news for Louisiana since John Kennedy Toole won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize thirty-six years ago. The National Book Foundation nominated two novels with strong New Orleans ties for their annual award in fiction. The first, A Kind of Freedom, is by New Orleans–born first-time novelist Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. The second, Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Tulane creative writing professor Jesmyn Ward, is a thematic sequel of sorts to her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones.
Both authors, it’s well worth mentioning, are African-American women, and both novels similarly examine the generational politics of race and its effects on families living in New Orleans and its surrounding environs (Ward’s novel, like her previous two, is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, a stand-in for DeLisle, Mississippi, the coastal Gulf community she calls home). Sexton and Ward should be read not just for the power of their prose but also because voices like theirs, and the themes they consider, are still too often underrepresented in contemporary Louisiana literature.
Thirty years ago, a kindred voice, speaking truth to those same themes, arrived on the literary scene. Fatima Shaik, an African-American journalist and fiction writer from New Orleans who has long lived and taught in the New York area, published The Mayor of New Orleans: Just Talking Jazz, a collection of three novellas, in 1987. Set during the tumult of integration and Hurricane Betsy, the book’s second novella, “Climbing Monkey Hill,” details the summer in the life of a teenager who dreams of scaling the still segregated pile of dirt-turned-playground in Audubon Park. “Before Echo” traces the parallel journeys of two black woman, mother and daughter, both born in the swamps just north of New Orleans, to the city and back.
Shaik centers her titular novella, a magical realist fable and the strongest of the three, on the life of trumpeter Walter Watson Lameir, a polymath performer able to blow the songs of Dixieland, Coltrane, and jazz fusionist Chuck Mangione. The narrative begins at the lunch counter of Buster Holmes’ restaurant, where Walter sips beers with Jake, a young, white first-timer to the city from the Northeast, plying him with the story of how he unwillingly became the mayor of New Orleans. What unfolds, over the next fifty-odd pages, is a critique of race, art, and politics that stings as much, if not more so, today than it did three decades ago.
The novella is a critique of race, art, and politics that stings as much, if not more so, today than it did three decades ago.
Walter’s life and career, he tells Jack, has been unsurprisingly hardscrabble; even in New Orleans—especially in New Orleans—jazz musicians starve for their art. Steady gigs are nonexistent, his wife bolts north with another man, he’s forced to sell his trumpet case. Horn in hand, he haunts the city’s streets, playing for no one and everyone. “I was parading myself from the seventh ward to the ninth ward, from Treme to the second ward,” he says. “I was going to play me some music to get the people happy enough to give me money.” He doesn’t make enough to eat, but he gains a following. A friend dares him to run for mayor, and the crowd-pleasing trumpeter leisurely concedes.
As Walter unspools his tale, a rotating cast of characters join the pair for an all-night ramble to oyster bars and cold beer joints. A peripatetic storyteller, the trumpeter weaves in and out of his narration, mixing past and present, improvising at the turn of a city corner, with the dexterity of a master soloist—creating a jazz arrangement in prose form.
“I got to be mayor of New Orleans because I wasn’t interested in nothing but music,” he tells Jack. Without a platform to run on, Walter campaigns by taking to the streets, playing his music, making people dance. “They shook they behinds so bad,” he reminisces, “they made up they minds to vote for me.”
The Honorable Walter Watson Lameir first acts to fix the city’s broken drainage and sewer system (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!). But life doesn’t remain so easy greasy, as the early blues singer Lil Johnson once sang, for the newly elected mayor. He’s stymied by the city council, forced out after just four months on the job, and unceremoniously sent to a short stint in jail. “They ain’t room for the truth in mayoring,” Walter confides.
That truth—that despite his lack of experience and wealth of charisma, it was his race that upset the established political order—is revealed throughout the novella. Walter exposes, for Jack and the reader, the historical reality of black life in New Orleans: white journalists make a buck off black culture, billy club–armed bullies fill the local police force, Mammy caricatures greet tourists outside French Quarter shops. From day one, veteran politicos reject Mayor Walter because of his Seventh Ward patois. (This was, of course, a matter of art reflecting real-world politics—the book dropped during the tenure of Sidney Barthelemy, the second of four successive black mayors from the Seventh Ward.) Shaik lets the irony ooze from the fact that Walter, the native New Orleanian, didn’t talk like people thought the mayor of New Orleans should talk, even though, in point of fact, “[e]verybody talked as bad as him. Some of them might try to act more proper or like they owned the English language. But . . . people put words together all kinds of ways, just like music.”
After spending four days in jail on trumped-up charges, Walter again takes to the streets, where he recites his fantastical tale to newcomers and other nonbelievers. Even Jack comes to dispute the validity of the ex-mayor’s story. “I’m from New York,” he says, by way of apology. “Things don’t happen like this up there.”
“You’d be surprised,” Walter responds, a sly retort that carries special resonance today, when nothing that comes out of New York politics can surprise ever again.Reading “The Mayor of New Orleans” a year after we, as a nation, voted into office the most unqualified presidential candidate in history can be especially enlightening; the collection remains out of print, but second-hand copies may be found with a bit of searching. More than half the country has spent the past year disheartened by the political process. Like Walter, many of us have reacted by parading in the streets to voice our demands for a more inclusive society, especially along gender and racial divides.
Exactly one month following the release of the National Book Award longlist for fiction, New Orleanians voted in the city’s mayoral primary. The top two vote finishers, it’s well worth celebrating, were African-American women. By the time this issue goes to print, the city will have elected its first female mayor. Perhaps mayoring in New Orleans just got a little more truthful.
Rien Fertel lives in New Orleans and St. Martinville. He is the author, most recently, of The One True Barbecue, and is currently writing a book about southern rock.