Place is one of the central themes in my life. The importance it holds for me is not normal. So it makes sense that the last few books I’ve cracked–A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut and Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck–are about place and thus about culture.
image courtesy of Flickr user, Rob Walker
Rob Walker’s Letters from New Orleans is a wonderful narrative like the aforementioned titles, concerned like I am, with place. And any visitor to, or resident of, New Orleans will tell you, the Crescent City is quite a place.
Walker, who writes the “Consumed” column in the The New York Times Magazine, started by sending the stories in this volume as emails to friends. He covers a wide swath of material in this bookâ€””the projects,” Carnival, high society, race, music, parades, food and more. One story I particulary like is called “3% Theory.” In it, Walker introduces the reader to performance artist Kal Spelletich. He first encountered Spelletich while a student at U of T in Austin. Given that Spelletich had come to Austin from Iowa, Walker asked if he wasn’t relieved to be in a more diverse place like Austin. Spelletich responed, “There’s always a fringe element. You could go to Waco, Texas, and 3 percent of the people are going to be these experiemental artists.”
Walker tells two tales about legendary New Orleans’ restaurant Galatoire’s. It’s funny stuff. He has a journalist’s eye for detail and nails the crusty oldtimers, drinking heavily and flirting over five-hour Friday luncheons.
It’s clear that Walker’s love for New Orleans is the real deal. I’ve only been there during Jazz Fast–yes five of them–but I know enough to know how important the culture of this most un-American of American cities is to the nation, to my friends and to me personally. Letters deepens the mystery whist revealing it (no easy task).