Reviews

Crawfish Dreams, a novel by Nancy Rawles

Reviewed by Dorothy Wall
for Lambda Book Report

 

Told with humor and grim panache, Crawfish Dreams is the story of the Broussards of Watts, California, for whom the 1965 riots were not TV spectacle, nor a brief footnote to history, but background to a life. We met this high-spirited, fractious Louisiana Creole family in Nancy Rawles' first novel, Love Like Gumbo, narrated by lesbian daughter Grace. In Crawfish Dreams the Broussards' lives tumble forward into the Reagan '80s, when the dispossessed were expected to be entrepreneurial, and Grace has become one voice in a multi-voiced story.

This time the seven siblings are grown—"two unattached, three unemployed, four unholy, two unashamed, seven unhappy, and one quite unwell"—and bent on finding refuge in less infamous corners of the Los Angeles basin. If their diaspora is weak on ambition, never stretching beyond Long Beach, the mother Camille, still rooted in Watts, has an ambition that is monumental: to make Watts a home.

When she puts out the call for delivery help for her fledgling meat pie business, children steam in from every corner of L.A.: unemployed Raymond from Long Beach, lonely Grace from Santa Monica, religious Louis from Crenshaw. They grouse, quarrel and resignedly serve their mother's dreams.

It would be an ordinary plot (stoic mother tries to sustain her family) if it weren't layered with other tales of disintegration—the decimation of a community and an earlier way of life—and with all the depressingly valiant individual struggles that go on when communities fail. The old hold on to the young, the young set out to preserve the old, all struggling fitfully under the same collapsed structure. Grandson Nicholas battles hostile police and alcohol; homeless son Joseph sleeps outside the boarded-up supermarket; Louis is about to divorce his wife; Raymond beats his son; daughters Grace and Yvette defy their mother and long for romance.

If it sounds gloomy, it's not. Rawles' pithy humor and the quirky vitality of her characters keep the story airborne. Here's neighbor Pep driving Camille, whom he's sweet on, in his heavily dented Ford pickup truck to retrieve her grandson Nicholas, just released from prison: "Pep struggled to gain control of the lunging demon. He jerked the wheel from side to side, an angler with a big one. 'Say your prayers!' he shouted. A sixty-two-year-old black man from Watts, he was already five years past his life expectancy."

Like the family it portrays, the novel is noisy and loosely hinged, with sons, daughters, neighbors and priests nudging each other aside to tell their version of events. While Camille plots ways to gather her children around her table, they convene in Anthony's kitchen and conspire to get her out of Watts, each one trying to foist her on another sibling. Exasperated kids crisscross L.A. in their exhaust-spewing orange Datsun or rusty blue Toyota, perpetually leaving and returning to the home with shuttered windows and dark, screened-in porch, "an improvement suggested by the 1965 Watts riots."

After the collapse of the meat pie venture comes the hot sauce idea. When that falls apart, the restaurant, "Camille's Creole Kitchen," takes hold. It rises, sputters, falls and rises again, rather like families and neighborhoods. That Camille's dreams are modest and extravagant at the same time is a comment on the odds she and her family are up against.

"'I've been having crawfish dreams,' she told [Pep]. They were sitting at her kitchen table cleaning crawfish heads.

"'What do crawfish dream about?' he wanted to know. 'Being stuck in the mud?'

"'Getting clean without getting cooked.'"

There are shortcomings. The satiric humor can reduce minor characters to caricature—as when the black Republicans suddenly appear to fund Camille's business—and prevent major characters from being more dimensional. And when so many characters vie for the story's voice, each one sometimes feels thin. But Rawles' sharp wit and her endearing if grouchy characters always motor things along.

The home-spun recipes—for Watts Riots Capon in Red Wine Sauce or Lester Pep's Bread Pudding with Rum-Soaked Apricots and Raisins—scattered through the book put a charming gloss on a story about much more than food. In Rawles' capable hands, cooking becomes healing art, capitalistic venture and family glue all in one. The feel-good crowd and young Republicans will both be happy.

***

Originally published in Lambda Book Report, April-May/June-July 2003, Vo. 11.09-11.11
Copyright © 2003, Dorothy Wall. All rights reserved.

 

Hallucinating Foucault, a novel by Patricia Duncker

Reviewed by Dorothy Wall
for The San Francisco Review

 

In the middle of Patricia Duncker's arresting debut novel, the 22-year-old narrator, obsessed with the brilliant, schizophrenic writer Paul Michel, stands in front of the French asylum where the writer is incarcerated. "Hospitals are strange, intermediary zones where sickness and health become ambiguous, relative states," the narrator observes. These slippery zones, where gender, sanity, and knowledge are all challenged, fascinate Duncker. She's particularly intrigued with the love that exists outside bourgeois morality and traditions: homosexual love; the uncanny, guileless love between child and adult; and especially the intimate, passionate exchange between reader and writer.

The young narrator, never named, is pursuing a doctorate at Cambridge, studying the fiction of Paul Michel (Duncker's fictional rendition of Foucault, created in the image of the man Foucault said he wanted to be: an attractive fiction writer, irresistible to the boys). The narrator is an ordinary guy, with a regular roommate named Mike and parents who gladly send along checks. One day he lifts his head from his texts long enough to spot a woman in the rare books room of the university library.

"She was bony and quick in her movements, skinny as a boy, oddly dated in her manners, like a mid-19th-century heroine." The narrator calls her the Germanist, and they fall into an affair through which she remains strangely aloof. The real affair of the book, between the reader and writer, is yet to come. Acting as subtle guide, the mercurial Germanist leads the narrator beyond his study of texts to Paul Michel's letters and ultimately challenges him to abandon the dusty caverns of the Cambridge Library altogether and go find his writer.

The heart of the book is its central section, set in the lunatic asylum at Clermont-Ferrand. The images of the mad Paul Michel (Paul-Michel was Foucault's actual first name) meeting his reader in the cloistered gardens of the asylum obviously electrified Duncker, and the charge is passed on to the reader. The elegant Paul Michel is a brilliantly realized character, both mad and sane, charming and tormented.

"He was alarmingly thin. We smoked another cigarette. Then he said, 'Who are you?' I hesitated. I said, 'I'm your reader. Your English reader.' His whole body flared for a second, like a dormant fire, touched by the wind, then went out into utter darkness. He sat frozen. Then he said, clearly, slowly, and without any gesture of menace beyond the lowering of his voice, 'Get out. Before I kill you.'"

The deceptively simple plot, in which the narrator engages ever more intimately with his writer, unfolds as a complex structure of fluid identities and interlocking narratives--an impassioned exchange between multiple readers and writers. Paul Michel's letters reveal that he and Foucault (yes, the historical Foucault appears as a character) carried on an intense affair, through letters and through their texts. "We read one another with the passion of lovers. Then we began to write to one another, text for text." The Germanist is animated by her own ardent and hermetic love affairs with writers. Duncker's novel itself is an imaginative engagement with Foucault's ideas about knowledge, sexuality, and madness, and Duncker's reader is drawn into the conversation.

Indeed, this idea that everyone's talking with one another is both the book's strength and its shortcoming. Too often, the characters sit around and discuss ideas. As a result, their emotions, particularly the narrator's, are sometimes unconvincing. The narrator remains an oddly flat character, a vehicle for the passions of others.

But when Duncker leads us into the asylum, into Michel's mad, complicated mind, and to the story's surprising end, her book comes powerfully to life. Her writing is romantic, dark, disturbing. Hallucinating Foucault is ultimately a unique love story, a search for that writer every reader longs for: the one who, as the Germanist says, gives both "trouble and pleasure."

***

Originally published in The San Francisco Review, January/February 1997, Vol. 22.1.
Copyright © 1997, Dorothy Wall. All rights reserved.