In the opening scene of this wonderful debut novel, a southern gothic that is at times comedic, at times heartbreaking, the protagonist, Simpson Weems, considers murdering his brother. We do not learn what Simpson ultimately decides until the end of the book. After the opening scene, the story becomes an extended flashback. Simpson spends the rest of the book dealing with the past, his own past and that of his family—pasts that are, as William Faulkner wrote and Simpson reminds us, never dead, not even past.
LaFlaur certainly pays his respects to Faulkner, and echoes of Flannery O’Connor can be heard on almost every page, but it is The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, that Elysian Fields most evokes. If at times Simpson Weems and his brother Bartholomew seem like two halves of the same person, it is Ignatius J. Reilly the combined pair most resemble, though I am assuming the tongue-in-cheek allusion to Bart Simpson was not accidental. In places Elysian Fields is as heavy as summer air in New Orleans, but it most definitely has a sense of humor.
Simpson Weems thinks of himself as a poet, though he has not written anything since college, fifteen years before. He has spent those fifteen years working in a copy shop and helping his aging mother and his hyper-religious, mentally defective (though highly intelligent) brother, Bartholomew. All the while he has been plotting his escape to San Francisco, where he intends to follow the tradition of the great Beat poets. Simpson is convinced that freeing himself from his clinging family and starting anew in San Francisco is the only way he will ever be able to write again—even if he has to resort to murder to get away. Yet it is clearly not only his family that interferes with Simpson’s artistic ambitions. Simpson is almost a parody of the blocked writer. He has become
a ruthlessly efficient self-cancellation machine that rejected as unworthy each little idea and would not accept a rough draft.
Simpson Weems is not only a blocked writer, he is a blocked human being. He is no more capable of addressing his personal problems than of writing a poem. Impotence of one kind or another is a recurring theme. Repressed or otherwise inhibited sexuality afflicts almost every character. Even the fire alarm in Simpson’s apartment is unable to respond with sufficient vigor:
An electronic voice warned, “Fire! Fire!” but the batteries were low, so the warning sounded like a mortally wounded Confederate artillery captain ordering “fiyah . . .”
Only the city itself seems able to sustain any passion. New Orleans is as much a character as are the people in the story. The narrative is drenched with the weather, the smells, the very heaviness of the air in New Orleans. A sense of impending doom hovers over this pre-Katrina setting:
The land, unreplenished, was sinking, the seawater coming closer, and, although few could bear to think about it, some could foresee the day when New Orleans would be surrounded like the city of Venice—gondoliers on Canal Street—and finally would be inundated like Atlantis. Eventually the man-made structures would collapse and sink beneath the salt water, and once again the Gulf of Mexico’s waves would wash up against the bluffs at Baton Rouge, as Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi said they used to do. In time to come, legends would tell of the enchanting river city that subsided, submerged—sunk beneath the weight of sin and corruption, some would say—and centuries from now they would wonder whether such a place had ever really existed.
And it is the city as much as Simpson’s family commitments that hold him:
Just saying the streets’ names felt like casting a spell. Was he seriously going to move away?
As Simpson’s story is told in flashbacks of the Weems family history, the point of view moves capriciously from character to character, as if searching for truth, or if no truth is to be had, a position from which an acceptable approximation can be fashioned. By the end, however, we are firmly in Simpson’s world where he finally manages to take definitive action in life, though not quite the action he had planned, and with slightly different results than he expected.
This is an impressive debut that will leave readers looking forward to LaFlaur’s next offering.